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Steven Johnson on “Emergence”

The folks at O’Reilly Network talk with Steven Johnson on “Emergence” (who will be keynoting at the Emerging Technology Conference this spring). Since reading it last fall, I keep coming back to the ideas presented in the book in the context of weblogs.

Take the universe of weblogs as a complex system. What, if anything, is “emerging” out of that system? One possible answer is that the collective act of weblogging is producing a basic form of journalism, which you might call “bottom-up journalism” or “peer-to-peer journalism”.

It works like this: individual webloggers, each acting in their own self-interest (the “simple-minded component parts” Johnson refers to), post bits of information to their weblogs.

Then the feedback loop starts. Readers and other webloggers take those initial bits of information, rework them, and feed them back into the system in the form of weblog posts, email feedback, or comments on individual weblog posts. Rinse. Repeat.

At the end of the line, in some instances, you eventually get a story that has been collectively edited by the system. Repeat this process millions of times a month with hundreds of thousands of participants, and you’ll get a few such stories a month.

In the end, at this stage in its development, it’s difficult to say whether the network of weblogs is emergent or not. Is the whole smarter than the sum of its parts? Is some higher level of structure or intelligence coming out of these 500,000 monkeys at their typewriters?

On the specific question of journalism, is the weblog network efficient at journalism? Probably not right now, but maybe that’s not the point. I have a hunch that weblogs are not “for journalism”, in the same way that the Internet is not “for business”, but that they will have an important role to play in the informal movement, filtering, dissemination, and refining of information.

What are your thoughts?

Reader comments

pbFeb 25, 2002 at 1:23PM

Tools could be key to weblogs emerging as a useful journalism network. Sites like Blogdex and Daypop are a start at aggregating and organizing content from thousands of blogs. They're only focusing on one aspect...links...but it's a start. Other tools like RSS could help put the text of weblogs together in meaningful ways. And services like Blogger, with a centralized content system, could be doing much more to start this process. The value is there, but it's going to take some creative tool-making to encourage interaction and bring it out.

jkottkeFeb 25, 2002 at 1:25PM

It's important to note that weblogs are not acting in a vacuum in this process. Weblogs are but a part of a larger information network that includes public mailing lists, private mailing lists, Wikis, ezines, private email correspondence, instant messaging, IRC, Usenet, etc. The primary roles of weblogs in the system are to tie all these other enties together and provide a record-keeping function for the network as a whole (i.e. information is being written down in a public place so everyone can read/use it).

Steven GarrityFeb 25, 2002 at 1:44PM

Another Marshall Mcluhan-esque indirect side-effect of blogging is the effect on individual writing quality and technique.

A writing professor of mine once told me that the best way to improve my writing was to write something, anything, everyday.

Adam Curry touches on the topic of regular writing at:

Steven GarrityFeb 25, 2002 at 1:48PM

Another interesting side effect of the 'comments/replies' aspect of blogs is the loose community surrounding blogs.

Powazek covers the concept of shared audience quite well in his book Design for Community. The pertinent excerpt can be found at:

Mr NosuchFeb 25, 2002 at 2:02PM

So each weblog can be represented as a cell on a checker board, with each neighboring cell representing another linked/read weblog. Throw a few random meme/stories down on the board, and let them propigate by a few simple rules and...

...hey, wait just a minute!

J LawlessFeb 25, 2002 at 2:43PM

I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of "blog as journalism", which always seems to imply "blog as news".

Journalism: writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation

Many times it seems, such as this very entry, that blogging tries to answer the essential questions of being: roof fell down on my head, why'd that happen?

Blogs are the great unpainted canvas. I'm sure you could probably tell the future with them if you wanted to, but I think even then you'd be rushing to judgement.

Blogs are the biggest mass writing experiment ever undertaken. While I'm sure we'll eventually see blogs-as-media, we're still just clanging away...

Arguably, some metablogs do qualify as journalism: MeFi, Plastic, Slashdot.

Howard RheingoldFeb 25, 2002 at 3:15PM

Justin Hall just wrote a good short piece about "Mobile Reporting: p2p Journalism," at

Hall reports from Tokyo about the popular new Japanese mobile telephones that take digital pix and send them to other mobile phone users and a new service that makes it easy to post pix directly from the phone to a web page. Mobile plus blogging does seem to me to have strong potential for an emergent peer journalism. The point is taken that not all personal publishing is journalism. But some of it is. Tracking the news that interests me involves checking more blogs than conventional journalism sites, for example, and that's hardly news.

Jason BeaumontFeb 25, 2002 at 4:02PM

I agree with both Howard and J Lawless. Journalism is certainly not the word to use for 99% of all weblogging activity. Commenting on a news story, offering a personal anecdote, writing opinion - none of these are journalism. They're writing, but not all writing (even if it's topical) is journalism.

I see many webloggers casually bandying about the term "personal journalism" or terms like it in description of what they're doing. There is very little investigate or objective about what they do, however. Also, by labelling yourself as a journalist (of any sort), I feel you're also obliged to take on a certain amount of ethical responsiblity (disclosure, objectivity, etc.) that not only do I not feel webloggers do, but I don't really think they should be doing.

Remember, for most this is a hobby, not a way to bring celebrity to the internet or promote their companies or speaking engagements. Weblogs are a (niche) genre of their own, isn't that more than enough to theorize on and run about creating new ideas? Why do people keep going back to thinking its some sort of populist journalism? Is it just because of the rare Kaycee occurences? There was a time when we used to call anything published on the internet "New Media", now, post bubble, we're slinking back to just comparing what we do to what we used to deride as "dead media." Stop trying to be so damn respectful.

victorFeb 25, 2002 at 4:05PM

Every time I make the case that blogging isn't journalism I get shouted down because either I don't get it or I get it and I'm threatened. I have nothing at stake in this discussion, honest.

I think blogging is something new and (potentially) vital. It's a new discipline that the vast majority of participants have not mastered. (My favorite analogy is that to musicians who are "early adoptors" of a new style -- just because you listen the records of that style, pick up a horn and blow, doesn't mean you're actually doing it well; and if all anyone hears are the multitude of wanna-bes it's easy to write off the whole style (e.g. "jazz has no melody", "rock and roll is just noise", etc.)

Right now blogging, as you describe it, is just gossip -- picking up bits of information from other (news) sources, and without any fact checking, repackaging it and moving it along.

"" (a book, not a website) by Cass Sustein has a good breakdown of "cybercascades."

gertFeb 25, 2002 at 4:20PM

Journalism, no matter how bad, is public. Blogs and on-line diaries may be presented to the public, but are still private enterprises.

A blog doesn't automatically have a source, the way CNN or Animal Planet or the Thrifty Nickel does. An analogy: I meet however many people a day (and strangers are likely, too likely, to talk to women), and I ignore most of what most of them say simply because I don't have time to judge the value of their comments. On the other hand, I know to ignore anything Larry King says because he's a gloating hole.

The quality of information or a conversation is not, usually, what makes it an expert or important to a large audience. The crucial ingredient is the source's role in the world. Some guy with a blog doesn't have the same role as FOX. And, given the importance of roles in society, I don't see that changing. (Look at Publishing on Demand technology. As soon as anyone using such a vanity press sells a certain number of books, literary agents swoop down and buy the rights.)

I don't see that blogs and weblogs are uniquely different or better than letters and round-robin letters. And reading them is, often, especially if they're bad or badly written, a guilty pleasure like eavesdropping.

Sure, some people, like JK, allow others to post... but social groups have always been available.

biberfanFeb 25, 2002 at 5:10PM

It shall certainly be interesting to see what the phenomenon of weblogging, or even in a more generalized term, "personal publishing," will be like, in say, 10 years. I think the fact that the technology we now embrace allows us to communicate relatively easily, about any topic that strikes us, in a seemingly professionally-viewed medium is significant. My thoughts can look just as good as CNN's "news." It can be just as easy to get at, and it's a near-equal player on the chessboard. I don't think weblogging is journalism in a classical context. When you ask, "what is emerging out of the weblogging system?" I'd have to say, a collection of thoughts. A collection of observations. A collection of opinions. People who write weblogs either aim to impress others (at the sake of honesty), or are very forthcoming and matter of fact. Either way, the medium reveals who the authors really are. I think weblogging enables a social consciousness--an avenue of frank communication. This is what we shall see emerge.

jkottkeFeb 25, 2002 at 5:11PM

victor says: Right now blogging, as you describe it, is just gossip -- picking up bits of information from other (news) sources, and without any fact checking, repackaging it and moving it along.

And I would argue that most of what is referred to as journalism today is exactly what you just described blogging to be in that sentence. I've been the subject of several (more than 25) articles in newspapers and magazines and I've only been fact-checked once. Speaking with friends that have had similar experiences reinforces that my experience is not unusual.

Fact checking in the weblog world happens all the time and is quite easy: "Victor Stone said such and such on this date and here's the proof in the form of a link to the weblog post where he said it." To get back to the original post, it's common for weblogs to fact check each other, thereby collectively creating something more valuable than each one would alone.

The True Definition of Journalism appears to be something that is open to opinion. Narrowly defined as "something that people who write for newspapers do", then, sure, weblogs are not journalistic at all. But if you define it a little more broadly, journalism is people telling other people what's going on in the world.

I like that second, simpler definition best because it's how journalism started. People went out into the world, gathered facts about events, wrote it up, and sold it to other people who wanted to hear about these things. Journalism is gossip (gossip defined as "a report about the doings of other people") me, the formal structure applied to it along the way has improved it, but hasn't replaced that essence.

As for shouting you down, you'll find none of that here, I hope. Just doing my little part to try to get to the bottom of something. ;)

Marc EscobosaFeb 25, 2002 at 5:24PM

Just to get back to Jason's original question: What is emerging out of mass weblogging?

I wanted to add something to pb's comments. It's not just DayPop and Blogdex... If you think about just the mere fact that blogs are repackaging links to other sites.. this will by definition bump up the PageRank on Google for oft-linked to sites. Over time, the combination of blogs with google will create an emergent situation for more popular content. The question is then: is more popular content better? Are we Starbucksifying the web?

victorFeb 25, 2002 at 5:33PM

hehe -- believe me when I tell you I don't hold "traditional journalism" in any high regard. (I won't list my street creds here but I know of what I speak as well.)

If you want to retrain everyone's ear as to what the word "journalism" means that can be your fight. I won't get in your way ;-) But blogging, especially the hyperlinking, "infinite deadline," visual design and community aspects, opens up so many more possiblities than traditional journalism it's not clear to me why you would choose that battle(?) What prize do you win if you convince everybody that "blogging is the new journalism"? Consider the effort put forth by the blogging community to defend that term -- either you guys are right and everybody else is wrong or -- or -- who cares again? You guys are different, why is that bad?

My $.02? Drop the term, break cleanly with the past, it's a new media, a new forum. Let jazz be jazz, call your stuff rock and roll and discover the new disciplines in the new light it deserves.

Jason BeaumontFeb 25, 2002 at 6:31PM

And I would argue that most of what is referred to as journalism today is exactly what you just described blogging to be in that sentence. I've been the subject of several (more than 25) articles in newspapers and magazines and I've only been fact-checked once.

Jason what you're talking about here, no offense intended, are fluff pieces - human interest stories. Yes I think that those are valuable stories, but it's almost as if you're lumping something like Woodward and Bernstein uncovering Watergate in with a story about you and Meg under the same area of "journalism." I don't really think it's fair to the people who have degrees in the subject, are employed to do it, are forced to meet ethical and investigative standards, have deadlines (where they can't change what they wrote midway through the day when their mood changes), etc.

This isn't discounting the writing that happens in weblogs, but if we're going to go by your definition of journalism then there's so much we can lump in there that the term "journalism" no longer carries any weight as a definition.

Saying I'm a journalist because I have a weblog is like saying that because I cook I'm a chef, or because I put some HTML up I'm a computer scientist. There's quite a bit more that a chef does than I do when I cook. While I may make a great risotto I'm not planning the menu of a restaurant, staying up late to concoct a new recipe for the stock to use, running a team of line cooks, etc.

jkottkeFeb 25, 2002 at 6:47PM

Jason what you're talking about here, no offense intended, are fluff pieces - human interest stories.

Some of them were, some of them weren't. And why should it matter if it's a human interest story or not? Shouldn't paid journalists do research on and fact check all of their articles? That's why they are getting paid, aren't they? To provide us with truthful information on what they are writing about?

My point is, when you hold newspaper articles, magazine articles, television news pieces, radio news pieces, and weblogs to the same standard, it still boils down to facts, credibility, quality of writing/reporting, etc. Most articles in traditional media don't hold up under that scrutiny, but some do. Even fewer weblogs hold up under that scrutiny, but again, some do.

And returning once more to the main question at hand, is the weblog network as a whole unknowingly producing work that could stand up under the same scrutiny that is applied to Real Journalism? Not in the majority of cases, but I think it is happening.

Chris WFeb 25, 2002 at 6:48PM

The thing that caught my attention about weblogs is the nature of how content flows and is weighted. This process is very similar to that of a neural network. You have multiple input nodes (content) flowing into a single output node (the blog). For this process to occur the input content has to surpass the threshold level of the webloger in order to make it into the blog. With functions like commenting and linking, a weighted value can be assigned to the input content making it more or less fit than other input content. What emerges out of wide scale weblogging is a clearer path of least resistance for conetent to move and become distributed. The more similar information is across multiple nodes helps to define what is accurate news and what is not by formation of general concensus. I think this is what will help drive more truth & facts into the journalistic endevour.

jkottkeFeb 25, 2002 at 6:55PM

If you think about just the mere fact that blogs are repackaging links to other sites.. this will by definition bump up the PageRank on Google for oft-linked to sites. Over time, the combination of blogs with google will create an emergent situation for more popular content.

This is interesting. Google and weblogs have been getting more and more cozy over the past year. Weblogs feed Google a lot of food (links and text). A lot of words and phrases I search for often return results from weblogs in the top 8-10 results.

Steven Johnson says on page 2 of the O'Reilly interview:

"I was thinking that what the Web needs is a big neo-cortex. There are all these very specialized smart, focused tools being developed, and data that's being mined, and collective intelligence on specific problems. But we're not as good yet at, not just filtering all that stuff, but figuring out what belongs connected to what else. Google is, in a way, the beginning of that. It's letting the Web solve that pattern itself, looking at patterns and links of what should be connected to other things."

Are weblogs laying down a crude template of those patterns for Google, and then Google is strengthening them through PageRank and other algorithms?

timoFeb 25, 2002 at 7:10PM

Vanessa Leggett, the journalist who was imprisoned because she refused to reveal confidential sources, talked to Suzy Spencer of the Austin Chronicle last week:
"AC: What makes a journalist?
VL: No one has been able to come up with a definition. I hear it's going to be something like the definition of pornography -- you'll know it when you see it. I really like the definition -- actually the one that a writer for The Austin Chronicle mentioned, I think it was Michael Ventura in his open letter to me: a journalist is someone who keeps a record of the day. And my definition is, I guess, anyone who tries to disseminate information to the public. That definition is difficult. I guess the only thing that I'm certain about is that I don't want the government to define who a journalist is."

victorFeb 25, 2002 at 7:12PM

Most articles in traditional media don't hold up under that scrutiny, but some do. Even fewer weblogs hold up under that scrutiny, but again, some do.

I see. You think journalism (or good journalism) equals "credible" -- and all a blogger has to do is be credible and then they are just like journalists. Something like that?

If so, you're still applying the word "journalism" to a process (blogging) and a network (weblogs) and whole of host of features (art design, community management, etc.) that even in the best of cases (e.g. no gossip, no wishlists, no nakey-cam) it has never been applied to. Good luck in your battles.

CindyFeb 25, 2002 at 7:16PM

Starbucks-ifying the web? Absolutely. I used to read a lot more link-oriented weblogs and dropped most of them when I started seeing the same content, over and over again.

The functions that blogs perform much more effectively are storytelling, community-building, and home-brewed recommendation engines. (In the last year, probably 30-40% of my books and music purchases have come in the form of casual recommendations from bloggers I trust.)

victorFeb 25, 2002 at 7:21PM

Are weblogs laying down a crude template of those patterns for Google, and then Google is strengthening them through PageRank and other algorithms?

Google, weblogging and HTML v1 all the same thing in common: links. All three have internalized this and have links at their core. So yes, technically it's one big happy match.

Meanwhile, if you think that number of links to a certain page increase that page's credibility then it's a great fit for your "blogging+credibility=journalism" case. I think there's a danger in assuming the most watched TV Network is the one most likely to disseminate the truth.

AmyFeb 25, 2002 at 7:41PM

While I'm not about to touch this "what is journalism" debate with yours, I would argue that the documenting of personal accounts *is* relevant. I'm hesitant to label it or assign it to any particular category just yet; I often think things get labeled too soon for the sake of convenience. (I like convenience, but still.) As for credibility -- who's to say?

anilFeb 25, 2002 at 7:51PM

is the weblog network as a whole unknowingly producing work that could stand up under the same scrutiny that is applied to Real Journalism?

It could be creating the raw material for it, but the framework upon which to hang this emergent "thing" (system?) doesn't exist yet. Google is an intrinsic part of the mechanism, clearly, but I see its role as more part of the creative, authoring side of the ultimate "thing" that will result from the amalgamation of the collective output of weblogs.

I imagine there being a Google Complement, software that doesn't search for a term or idea in multiple sites, but that aggregates, links and provides context for content from multiple sites. Maybe I'm limited by my existing knowledge, but what I imagine is a personalized, collaboratively filtered wiki-type (with a better interface) thing which uses microcontent sources to create its output.

Google would be the "from", blogs would be the raw materials, and the Thing would be the "to", the final result. And no two people's Things would look the same, depending on tastes and time and history and context.

That Thing will get a name, unquestionably, and it'll have a noun-value equivalent to the weighty concept of "journalism".

megnutFeb 25, 2002 at 8:04PM

What prize do you win if you convince everybody that "blogging is the new journalism"?

How about a change in what's reported and how news is disseminated and read? Or better yet, a new definition of what qualifies as news? Or to be slightly hyperbolic, a media revolution? Six firms dominate all American mass media (source: The Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian), surely there's room for a few more voices in the mix? With weblogs I see the potential to transform the way traditional media operates.

The push for people to label weblogs as journalism (or potential journalism) is a response to what passes nowadays as journalism. Many people feel under- or unrepresented by traditional/mass media. Mass media is shallow, playing to the lowest common denominator so it can appeal to the widest possible audience. That leaves a lot of people feeling dissatisfied and uninformed. More importantly, without the label "journalism" it's easy to cast aside the writing that's occurring in weblogs as personal, amateur, or somehow less worthy of the public's attention than the "real" stuff written by professionals.

Not all webloggers are journalists, of course. Most aren't and don't want to be. But I fail to see how a weblog post objectively analyzing and exposing a bad customer service experience is any less journalistic in nature than a glowing review of the Harry Potter movie (produced by Warner Bros.) in Entertainment Weekly (a Time Warner Inc. publication). There is good and bad professional journalism and there's good and bad amateur journalism. It all comes down to quality and credibility.

that number of links to a certain page increase that page's credibility
Again, it's about potential, the number of links increase the potential that the page is credible. With more links comes more readers, with more readers comes more responsibility, and an increase in the odds that someone will read the site who knows more than the author. The collective audience of weblog readers and writers knows more than the staff at CNN simply by virtue of their size. The weblogs-as-journalism movement is an attempt to harness that collective power for everyone's benefit, not simply deliver "news" to improve AOL/Time Warner's bottom line.

victorFeb 25, 2002 at 8:36PM

a response to what passes nowadays as journalism.

I understand the point you are trying to make, but can you see how lousy this argument can look to someone just walking up to this? "Look how fucked up traditional journalism is!!! We're at least that bad!" ;-)

without the label "journalism" it's easy to cast aside the writing that's occurring in weblogs as personal, amateur

I'm not a journalist or a psychologist but this sounds like it's bordering on Napoleanic. Screw the label. You spend so much time defending and applying that term to a case that, by your own admission, is "a new definition" that the real potention for blogging, in fact, gets lost.

You guys sell your stuff the way you want to sell it, but for my money you'd a) have an easier time and b) actually makes thing clearer is you said "No, we're not about journalism, we want to be better than that."

Blogging is a NEW artform, a craft. Fuckin-A, how often can you say that? It is very intense and takes a lot of discipline to it well. I've tried it and I was impressed with the few of you that do it that well. Freakin celebrate THAT! Instead hanging your hopes for credibility on that tired 'j' word. Just do blogging really well, and mentor those that show potential to be breakthrough artists in this new artform/craft.

timoFeb 25, 2002 at 8:46PM

On the fact that someone may read your site who knows more than the author:
IMO, the best weblogging involves sharing information that might have gone unnoticed had I not read it on one person's page at that time. For me, those are the best weblogsÑthe ones that shine the spotlight on interesting vignettes, stories, interviews, books and information that would have slipped under the radar had someone not taken the time to point them out to me. I think the best webloggers realize intrinsically that they don't know everything, but are voraciously curious enough to want to seek out and drink in all the information they can about a topic and disseminate the tastiest chocolate chips from the cookies. Knowing that you don't know and being able to admit you don't know is powerful. And the smug tones of those who always act like they know more than me sometimes turn me off. I mean, people like Caterina and her guy pal Stewart are very unassuming and generally excited about sharing their key finds with us, and although I know that they are ultra-intelligent, they never come off as condescending. Kudos to them.

jkottkeFeb 25, 2002 at 8:47PM

"Look how fucked up traditional journalism is!!! We're at least that bad!" ;-)

Or at least that good.

You guys sell your stuff the way you want to sell it

I'm not selling anything. I just think this stuff is really interesting to talk about.

Blogging is a NEW artform, a craft.

What's easier? Trying to convince someone some new thing is somehow important or trying to change people's minds about some old thing? I think it's a toss-up.

MichaelFeb 25, 2002 at 9:11PM

Great discussion here. I've watched the rise of this "weblogging as journalism" meme for some time now, as most here have also done. At first I dismissed the idea out of hand, even though I have my own weblog and really enjoy the whole process. Later, I started to take the idea that it might be journalism more seriously. There are a lot of stories that get their fullest treatment through weblogs, and the time-organized characterisic is a great service as a large and important story is breaking.

But lately, especially as the heat has turned up under the idea, I've gone back to the idea that weblogging isn't journalism at all. It's something else. Weblogging is its own form, to me. To try and make it fit any other definition invariably misses some important element of weblogging - and in glossing over something important, the real "juice" of weblogging is also passed over.

To say that it's a different medium isn't to suggest for a second that it's a lesser medium or anything like that. The fact is that the only reason we can even consider the question is that journalism itself has mutated almost beyond recognition. It has been professionalized to death.

One could go on for hours on the subject, but "journalism" is quite a new term that conflates several jobs that are entirely different beasts: reporters, editors, and columnists. I used to think about this a lot when I wrote for a local weekly. Everyone used to say, "hey, you're a journalist now - cool." And it bugged me, cause I was just starting out by writing opinion pieces. I may have been a journalist, technically, but I wasn't a reporter.

Anyhow - even though I believe that it's better to treat weblogging as a different, unique form on its own, I will also point out a fundamental issue with trying to call it journalism. One axis of identifying journalism must surely be the distinction between the publisher and the journalists/editors. Although the wall between them is quite porous now, it doesn't exist at all for the vast majority of webloggers. I wonder how significant that is?

victorFeb 25, 2002 at 9:15PM

What's easier?

What would be easier is that you educate people about the new thing as it actual is (with a sprinkling of visionary potential accepted as par). Labelling it something that it's not doesn't sound easy to me. Just look at this thread.

Tying the threads together: blogging is a networking effect -- it's a bunch of folks sitting around talking about the news (and themselves, and each other). Anil sounds like he could work for the MIT Media lab but there is something there -- a meta-recommendations engine that eventually learns what kind of information I like and based on a loosly coupled recommended-via-link network indexed by, say, Google is definitely going to happen. This is the kind of thing journalism doesn't have a prayer at touching and, in a way, supercedes today's media so 'journalism' is simply too narrow a word for what this is. Consider, as others have noted, this is how I will find music, Australian dogs, romantic poetry, and even (especially!) anti-establishment culture jamming rhetoric.

nickFeb 25, 2002 at 10:04PM

One angle: blogging is a great practical primer in media literacy, which may not be journalism... but then again might be, simply because one of the things revealed by that education is the way in which many stories are simply rewrites of rewrites of press releases. That's especially common in the blog communities, or the collaborative sites. Of course, one of the problems is when certain 'blog networks' replicate the insularity of mass media: something which has been evident in the polarisation of opinion over the last few months. The 'warbloggers', for instance (you know who they are) are as sniggeringly self-regarding as the Weekly Standard referencing Fox News referencing the National Review.

Anyway, Danny O'Brien (of NTK) made a very smart point in a talk he gave a few years ago, back when what would now be called 'blogs' were simply 'home pages'. He said that you tend to have faith in the veracity of the major news media until a story occurs in which you have an intimate knowledge of the facts. (I suspect that megnut's latest post is a QED here.) Now, if you have a sufficiently large -- but more importantly, sufficiently diverse -- community, armed with the tools for immediate comeback, all 'official' stories become subject to revision. Now, there's no guarantee that the first, or even the first dozen revisions will be any more accurate than the original piece, but there's an openness which is valuable and a real challenge to the suffocation that characterises mainstream media, especially in the US. In fact, if you feel sufficiently lit-crit about it, what blogging initiates is a set of practices which fits the bill of Barthes' writerly text: practices that are much closer to Barthes's ideals -- 'to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text' -- than the hypertextual 'choose your own media adventure' that was first regarded as its archetype.

Jason BeaumontFeb 25, 2002 at 10:17PM

Megnut, I could do a find on the word weblog on your post and replace it with "zine" and we'd have a circa early 90s Factsheet Five essay. I think the reality is that both zines and weblogs lower the barriers of entry to publishing and open up a variety of creative writing in people who never felt they could do any such thing.

I don't mean to sound like a repetitive asshole here (woops!), but isn't that idea enough? Why does it also have to now be journalism? Because if I follow the money here (even if it's tiny), the majority of people who seem to want to label it as journalism are not the hobbyists, but the tool vendors, the conference speakers, and the dozen or so people who the majority of the weblog audience reads. And I agree with your point about the 6 media companies and the need for additional voices but when those additional voices are primarily linking to those 6 media companies what did we gain? And haven't those voices pretty much begun looping around the big kahuna weblogs I mention above?

Now whether this body of new creative writing on the net shows any emergent behavior is pretty hard to say. The majority of the posts above seem to attack the idea automatically from a tools perspective - "I imagine a tool that does this" or "If you aggregate this and that you could maybe get this." I assume that's because most of us come from a somewhat techy background, even with our arts and sciences leanings. I think it's hard to look for emergent behavior at this point because we still haven't defined the set of components we're looking at.

megnutFeb 25, 2002 at 11:48PM

Why does it also have to now be journalism?

I'm not saying it has to be, I'm not even saying it is (perhaps I'm not saying that clearly enough, I don't know). All I've ever thought is that there's potential here for some of it to be. And I don't think it's about the, "dozen or so people" you claim the majority of people read. I just think that with the number of people and the exposure people are able to achieve through the medium there's the potential for some different type of reporting to happen.

Take for example, a weblog kept by a guy who went to Salt Lake City to be an event coordinator for the Olympics. He wrote up bits and pieces of what he experienced on his site, bringing a different part of the Olympics alive to those of us who weren't there, and did so in a refreshingly honest and humorous manner, unlike much of NBC's coverage. Now is that reporting? Perhaps not quite. Is it commentary? Sure. Is it journalism? I kind of think so, though not the formal journalism found in an investigative reporting piece for the Washington Post.

Anyway, I don't think all weblogs are journalism. I don't think most weblogs want to be journalism. I think weblogs are great as they are. But I think some weblogs have some content that can also be construed as journalism, and I think that's a good thing. Because frankly, the state of current journalism, and especially the mass media's online efforts, suck.

victorFeb 26, 2002 at 1:49AM

Meg, I appreciate the struggle you're having expressing these things. I'm starting think you may be sending mixed, overlapped messages that don't easily gel together.

The collective audience of weblog readers and writers knows more than the staff at CNN simply by virtue of their size

and then

I don't think most weblogs want to be journalism.

seem to be in conflict because if one CNN staffer goes to Pakistan and 25,000 bloggers stay home in California because, well, it didn't occur to them to be a journalist, then who knows more about Pakistan?

Maybe your vision is this: 1000 people march in the streets of Seattle. Six news outlets cover with the same basic angle. Meanwhile 250 of the 1000 people rush home to blog their experience and collectively counter-balance the jingoistic-product-consumer bent to the big six.

It's a vision that doesn't match up to today's reality, which is OK, it is a vision after all, but there's a bigger problem: these 250 are pretty busy living their lives, marching in the streets, to spend two hours a day being a great blogger. Good Blogging is hard friggin work. I, for one, couldn't hack it. I don't know whose idea it was to make these things updatable every minute but it's hard to be insightful, thoughtful, clever and well-researched that many times a day.

anilFeb 26, 2002 at 2:20AM

We focus on tools because we have to. We might have the printing press in this medium, but we're just now mastering (no pun intended) movable type. I don't think we're even reaching towards the product that these tools can be used to create because, frankly, we're too close to it to know.

And creating tools is a manifestation of our arts and sciences background. The answer to the debate at hand is, of course, that some blogs will be appropriately considered journalism, usually as commentary or "columnist" journalism, and a smaller number will be considered "hard news" journalism. And the vast, overwhelming majority of weblogs will not even approach the journalistic debate.

Which is why I return to wondering what the networked universe of microcontent authors will collectively create. Ultimately, the number of weblogs that ever need approach the journalism labelling maelstrom is so small percentage-wise (albeit in authorship, not readership) as to be statistically insignificant. What are the other 100% of weblogs going to be called collectively, and, more importantly, what are they going to create collectively?

neuroproFeb 26, 2002 at 5:45AM

There is one thing that I consistently noticed about Weblogs.
Nobody mentioned this in the recent series of articles.
They get quite a few visitors during working hours, and traffic
decreases to approximately half during weekend.

I wonder whether that's good or bad on the long run.
Imagine, 1000 people visiting the same site (either the
same one hundred people ten times a day, or one thousand
different people once a day, but mostly the same visitors
day after day), while the writer of the site updates it approximately
twenty times a day (including comments).

Not all Weblogs are like this of course, but I found a striking example!

How do you think that affects the work of visitors/writers?
Would these same people waste their time differently, if Weblogs
were not invented? Or it's not really a waste of time after all?

Mark CraneFeb 26, 2002 at 7:41AM

Great stuff. I just gave some presentations on teaching writing and weblogs, and I had with me an excerpt from Johnson's discussion on the Well about emergence, and I kept on wanting to work it into what I was talking about, but couldn't make the connection.

So Kottke gets the Smart Guy of the Day award.

Sure, weblogging may not be formal journalism, but it's definitely journalistic. And the boundaries of journalism seem to have been growing increasingly porous in the past decade or so. Is there a postmodern journalism? And what would it have to say about "objectivism" ? Does anyone really believe that the Washington Post or NYT or objective?

Random thought: what are the connections between emergence and usability?

BeckyFeb 26, 2002 at 7:52AM

I notice that the main focus in these "weblogging is a fad" articles of late is how weblogs are "a new form of media", where the authors tend to be "wannabe" journalists of "wannabe" writers. Why so critical? Perhaps the people writing these articles are a bit nervous that weblogs spread news more effectively and quickly than the newspapers they write for do...or maybe they look down on them. Whatever the reason, I feel it is entirely incorrect on the part of these journalists to assume that all weblogs endeavor to be tools of widespread journalism. Because in my particular case, mine doesn't. I don't attempt to make it so. Not by a long shot. It is a means of personal expression, where I note down things that interest me, amuse me, or strike me as bizarre or entertaining. Presented very much the way I would mention such things in a conversation with a friend or family member. Nothing more.

Jim RainFeb 26, 2002 at 9:50AM

Weblogs do evoke comparisons with other earlier forms of communication, including (but not limited to) journalistic forms: diaries (obviously), town hall meetings, op-ed pieces, news digests, telephone partylines, old-fashioned commonplace books. Some of those forms are intensely personal and subjective; others claim a mantle of objectivity. It's that stew of personal and public, objective and subjective, monologue and dialogue, that's a big part of the appeal of weblogs, and I think it's what ultimately makes them unlike any previous form of communication.

megnutFeb 26, 2002 at 9:58AM

you may be sending mixed, overlapped messages that don't easily gel together

Well, I hope not, but maybe I'm not writing very effectively. I believe I'm thinking of some broader stuff than perhaps I'm expressing. First, when I say weblogs, I mean all weblogs, not just personal ones done by individuals. I include MetaFilter, Plastic, Slashdot, and collaborative media sites like Kuro5hin. When I say the collective is stronger than CNN, I mean the whole shebang, the 500,000+ people writing these sites and the million+ people reading them.

To use your example, if CNN send one reporter to Pakistan but the weblog collective is over a million strong, what are the chances that that one reporter learned more in her visit than that million has experienced? I have been an active participant on MetaFilter since its inception (a community which consists of only 13,000~ members) and I never ceased to be amazed by how much people know about the topics at hand, across the board. That's what I'm trying to get at.

When I said most weblogs don't want to be journalism, I was referring to the fact that most webloggers are not making a conscious effort to be journalists: to be objective, to find and validate sources for their "articles", to use editors. Most weblog writing could be called the antithesis of journalism, and that's ok, because it's not supposed to be, and I'm not trying to make it into that.

It's the power of the collective that fascinates me, and I think that's where the power in peer-to-peer journalism lies. Like Anil, I'm interested in the tools that will help us visualize what the, "networked universe of microcontent authors will collectively create."

nickFeb 26, 2002 at 10:35AM

Becky: I can't help suspect that the faint snobbery of the labelling of weblogs as 'wannabe' journalism in these pieces comes from the fairly recent US phenomenon of 'journalism school'. Which reminds me of the relationship between the great universities and the autodidacts in the late 19th century: the argument being that 'if you couldn't get into the institution, you have no right to enter its territory.' And that's has little in common with the traditional route up the journalistic ladder. Sure, there's a fairly rigorous training that takes place in the newsroom, but you don't really appreciate that at j-school -- at least, the quality of j-school-produced newspapers suggests that's the case.

Meg: the sense that CNN's 'man in Pakistan' knows less than his intended audience just proves that US broadcasters have become increasingly complacent when it comes to foreign coverage, suspecting that they can respond to the audience's perceived lack of interest with a comparable lack of effort. All you need to counter that is a handful of vocal people to point this out, in a forum that's less restrictive than the letters page and the 'talkback' forum, both of which promote the illusion of criticism over the reality.

(What's missing, generally, from blogs is an ability to transcend the language barrier, although there are good signs from a few sources. That's what makes the BBC's 'From Our Own Correspondent' so useful, and it's no surprise that blogs are good at replicating its format.)

victorFeb 26, 2002 at 11:20AM

hehe! well we all agree to agree with Anil because he seems pretty adamant that universe be called anything but journalism. I happen to think his analysis is pretty right on, but I do understand your pov a lot better now -- you're right, your definition of 'blogging' is broader than I assumed. I think this squishy definition pool along with squishy rules of blogging comes off less threatening and more just-plain-confusing to a lot of old crufts (like me).

It's the power of the collective that scares the living daylights out of me. Again, Sunstein is very, very informative here.

sjcFeb 26, 2002 at 11:20AM

The special pleading by bloggers to try and define, "craft" as journalism just strikes me as the kids wanting to sit at the big table at Thanksgiving.

By and large, blogging is journalism in the same sense that The O'Reilly Factor; in other words, it's not reporting anything, it's commenting on something that's already been reported.

Any story that comes through the AP wire or a newspaper or a television is already several degrees removed from reality. The raw facts have been turned into a "story," a dramatic reinterpretation of the facts that will appeal to the most people possible. Therefore, to see a thousand bloggers all linking to the same thing and offering their various opinions strikes me not as journalism, but as water-coolering.

There's no fact-uncovering, no research, no time away from the computer for bloggers. Real journalists are busy being shot at and kidnapped in Afghanistan. Blogging is armchair journalism.

Bill SeitzFeb 26, 2002 at 11:21AM

I think Jason has framed the question more interestingly/usefully as "is the weblog network efficient at journalism?".

Or even better as "what changes could make the weblog network more effective at journalism?".

If we define journalism as "communicating meaningful (significant) truth about (and to) the world", maybe that helps even more.

Creation of InformationMarkets sound critical to me, as they put money behind statements of belief. And, when made into operational contracts as in IdeaFutures, they can be properly "settled". Which can ground statements in "reality" better than happens now, I think, which will produce more semantically meaningful information, vetted by a liquid market.

Or I could be smoking some meta-dope here.

victorFeb 26, 2002 at 11:40AM

What are the other 100% of weblogs going to be called collectively, and, more importantly, what are they going to create collectively?

Are you asking rhetorically? I'm guessing you have some thoughts here....

Phil WolffFeb 26, 2002 at 1:34PM

Deadlines get in the way of the feedback loop. This is one of the results of the U.S. Naval War College's Global Game. While everyone posted, urgency didn't allow enough time for people to comment, digest, analyze or otherwise riff and thread on those posts. This also kept good ideas from becoming popular enough to pop out to decision makers before deadline.

Chris KingFeb 26, 2002 at 1:42PM

Perhaps the most interesting thing about blogging, the thing that sets it apart from all other media, is that the news, the "journalism," is intertwined with opinions and emotions. To me, making the rounds of my favorite blogs every day is more exciting (and much more informative) than watching any news program. It's important to see not only what happened, but how people are reacting to it, which is something that TV, radio and newspapers aren't

Even better is the hyperlink, the infinitely useful tool that connects the reader to infinite amounts of related information. This idea is something that TV and radio are lacking -- I think they were aware of this when they tried to enact the CueCat; if this technology had caught on, the TV networks would be able to connect their viewers to more information just like news sites can. It never did though (fortunately for us.)

And then there's the search engine, allowing me to find as many different views on a subject as I want.

Clearly, blogging isn't just "journalism", it's beyond anything traditional journalism can serve up!

jkottkeFeb 26, 2002 at 1:47PM

Perhaps the people writing these articles are a bit nervous that weblogs spread news more effectively and quickly than the newspapers they write for do...or maybe they look down on them.

I'm not sure about that. In talking to reporters and friends who are reporters about any jealousy or nervousness because of weblogs, I've found that the opposite is true. Reporters are generally excited about them, using them for research or doing one themselves, just to try it out. Or else they're totally disinterested. In either case, I don't think they're worried about the security of their jobs or profession.

And again, like I said in my original post, I don't think weblogs are "for journalism", and I agree with Victor when he says weblogs are something new and full of exciting possibilities. The notion that weblogs are going to somehow bring traditional journalism down is just marketing and wishful thinking.

The special pleading by bloggers to try and define, "craft" as journalism just strikes me as the kids wanting to sit at the big table at Thanksgiving.

I can't remember if I said this before or not, but almost nothing I do on my site is journalistic. My site is about me. It's very important to me in a variety of ways. In the grand scheme of things, my site is unimportant. I don't care about attaching what I do to an Establishment. I'm perfectly fine sitting at my own table, welcoming a few guests for dinner every night.

Therefore, to see a thousand bloggers all linking to the same thing and offering their various opinions strikes me not as journalism, but as water-coolering.

Absolutely right. And if that is all weblogs do, I would agree that it's just a bunch of opinionated pointing. But as Victor and Meg have pointed out, they are capable of more than that.

jkottkeFeb 26, 2002 at 1:51PM

At this point, I'd like to ask everyone (I'm possibly the worst offender here) to try to leave the journalism aspect of this discussion alone for now and get back to the question of weblogs and emergence, which I feel is a much more interesting question.

I have a few thoughts that might redirect the conversation in that direction, but I need to go to lunch. :(

Chris WFeb 26, 2002 at 3:13PM

intr.v. eámerged, eámergáing, eámergáes
1. To rise from or as if from immersion: Sea mammals must emerge periodically to breathe.
2. To come forth from obscurity: new leaders who may emerge.
3. To become evident: The truth emerged at the inquest.
4. To come into existence.
I think I'm going to go with number 2 on this, as it best suits the common function involved in weblogs. The need for the masses to have a voice has always been there, weblogging tools enabled an easier method of manifesting this voice, especially on a rapid scale. As the desktop OS opened the world of computing to the masses, which in the current state the sum is much stronger than the parts, weblogs open up the Internet for the masses. Collective weblogs are great examples of distributed parallel information retrieval or creation. More obscurity comes fourth when you have a larger distributed network of visitors. What lacks currently is a method to sort and organize this information. If the standard weblog tools had embedded search engines that could analyze|rate|sort|expedite the contained information a greater efficiency would be returned to the whole of the system. Weblogs have proved very useful, especially in relation to the ability to comment, for technical related content, an example is game development. Bugs, fixes, patches, questions, and what not can rapidly be deployed and a multitude of interested parties have the ability to expand or correct on any of the content. This loops back to the whole parallel value of weblogs.

kayjayFeb 26, 2002 at 4:24PM

What I see coming out of blogging is a new approach to historical documentation. At present, when archeologists, anthropologists, historians, etc. look at the past, so much of it is based on incomplete information. "History is written by the winners." Large accounts may be preserved, but the day-to-day is lost. That is one of the reasons that collections of letters and diaries have been so important. It is also one of the reasons that the history of "marginalized" people can be so hard to decipher.

What we are doing now is building a record of millions and millions of people from a myriad of background. Our daily lives, alternate viewpoints of historical events, and social quirks are written down and collected. Certainly some of it will disappear through time, as sites are lost and content is purged, but I believe that through the shear volume of information--much of it intimate and personal--we are storing on the interent in the form of weblogs, much of it will be presevred for the historians of future generations.

jkottkeFeb 26, 2002 at 4:53PM

Cindy had an interesting observation:

home-brewed recommendation engines. (In the last year, probably 30-40% of my books and music purchases have come in the form of casual recommendations from bloggers I trust.)

I find myself doing this as well (my purchases run closer to 50-60% maybe), and I don't think that it's what people who weblog intended to happen. If you're looking for something specific, the loosely-coupled rec-engine of weblogs won't help you much (not nearly as much as a site like Epinions), but if you're just looking for an interesting next book to read or new album to pick up, weblogs are perfect...a 15 minute jaunt through your favorite weblogs might turn up 8 or 9 good recommendations, no problem.

anilFeb 26, 2002 at 5:23PM

What are the other 100% of weblogs going to be called collectively, and, more importantly, what are they going to create collectively?

Are you asking rhetorically? I'm guessing you have some thoughts here....

I do have thoughts. But, like a journalist, you have to pay to hear them.

Addressing the emergent properties of weblogs goes back to a concept Jason mentioned on a panel at SXSW last year, about a MCMS, a microcontent management system. The hardest part of visualizing this tool, I realized a few weeks later, was that we had no idea what the tool would be used to make. And we still don't.

The things we do know we want in it are trust mechanisms, peering systems, collaborative filtering. All the good networky stuff. But what does it look like? Every visualization I've been able to come across (granted, my background is rather limited) involves individual panes or modules or notecards, looking vaguely like the Brain or HyperCard. And those all, frankly, suck.

Don't get me wrong, there are people who love and use those tools, but they'll never be mass-market like the HTML web browser is. The cloud of information that emerges from weblogs will likely be defined by its multiplicity... the pervasiveness of links, and the fact that sheer repetition of memes will be the basis for most of the value assigned to different concepts. It's a democracy applied to information, with the ultimate concept being that webloggers are the representatives in that democracy.

but if you're just looking for an interesting next book to read or new album to pick up , weblogs are perfect...

This is one of those points the platform for the emergent web must address, (and indeed, one of the points that distinguishes this post-blog medium from journalism) that one of the greatest appeals of weblogs are their inherent serendipity, that proximity of two bits of information which are unlike in every regard except that they both occupied the mind of a single person during different points in time. So add a time axis to the emergent cloud, too.

Richard BennettFeb 26, 2002 at 5:48PM

I've been logging one thing or another on my website since 1994 (first it was personal, then professional, then political, and since 9/11, cultural), so I probably have a different take on this question of "emergence" than some others might. It seems to me that the main thing emerging out of weblogs isn't anything democratic or journalistic as much as its a system that gives experts a forum to expound on stuff that they really know inside and out. Journalism doesn't do this, because its practitioners are jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none. Democracy doesn't have much to do with it either, fortunately, since it's facile generalism in spades. I like the fact that I can go to a weblog or three any time I want I find somebody who really understands accounting and Wall St. expounding on Enron and Anderson at a level of detail you'll never find in the press since those folks are too busy trying to elect somebody to delve deeply, and they don't understand the mechanisms either.

For this phenomenon to flourish, at some point we have to develop a mechanism that shifts the resource and bandwidth costs to the consumer, since a good, expert log is easily overhwhelmed with traffic; some sort of subscription/micropayment scheme will do that.

billFeb 26, 2002 at 5:50PM

it will always, only be as strong as it's weakest component, making the so called "rinsed" version worthless.

janusFeb 26, 2002 at 6:47PM

I believe that what emerges from the weblog-community is a complex navigational instrument. Every blogger scours part of the web and provides links to the pieces of information that appeal to him Ð some of it gathered from other weblogs. The information is fed into the community through both personal and collective weblogs such as metafilter where it is picked up by other bloggers. In this way the weblog community serves as a collaborative filtering system with countless feedback loops. In this system the individual blogger can be thought of as an intelligent agent Ð collecting, filtering and linking to the information he finds interesting while at the same time providing personal information (both in the ÔaboutÕ section and throughout the daily posts) that gives the reader insight into what kind of information filter the blogger constitutes. The weblogsÕ strong personal profile and the social network of recommended weblogs make it relatively easy for me to find the intelligent agents who best match my own taste and interests. Through these weblogs the web is presurfed for my Ð not only by the personal weblogs I happen to read, but also by the weblog community. In contrast to most web-navigational instruments I donÕt have to know what IÕm looking for Ð chances are that the links presented on my preferred weblogs will have some relevance to me. And knowing that the linked information has been through both a collaborative and a personal filter IÕm likely to attach a certain importance to the links.

victorFeb 26, 2002 at 7:14PM

anil: It's a democracy applied to information, with the ultimate concept being that webloggers are the representatives in that democracy

What you and Meg both seem to be describing is a majority rules applied to information. The smaller the voice, the more unpopular, the less likely they are to be heard in this post-blog era. There is a legal concept called the public forum doctrine that guarantees that these unpopular voices be heard at the "the town square" level -- forget the user interface for what you're envisioning, who's doing the filtering? The user? That's not good enough.

The last thing Google's page rank system implies is a democracy. It's a system for finding popular data as defined by popular people. So far the most accurate projection I've heard in this thread is that of a meme archive.

matrulloFeb 26, 2002 at 8:11PM

I would suggest that the thought that people are learning to blog might also work in reverse: blogs are people learning to have voices, presence, in a literary medium. For many, this is their first adult experience of this sort of thing. Often these are the most interesting presences, whereas the allegedly professional "writers" demonstrably fail to comprehend even the most basic properties of the activity - for example, the fact that it involves links. Other industrial-strength pundits believe blogging rises to the level of being the next step in vanity sites. What one senses here is the pontification of ignorance filtered through long practice in knowing so much that it hurts. It takes time to appreciate the nuances of new things. I don't expect anyone fully has, but those of us who at least have tried it for a while could speak volumes more than the NY Times, Mr. AS, or Mr. Dv, or others who have kindly taken the trouble to inspect the goods in their hermetically sealed editorial chambers. One possible way to describe a good blog: journalism with the gloves off.

vanderwalFeb 26, 2002 at 10:48PM

Journalism is largely associated with the digging out of a story revolving around a news item. Journalism helps add depth and understanding to the stories that are happening in the world around us. Another portion of the traditional news media are the opinion or editorial pieces that are not journalism as they offer opinion, which traditionally journalism tried to stay away from in the U.S. Journalists also have a role of being a trusted interpreter of the news.

Using that as a rough frame to examine weblogs as a form of journalism. Weblogs have varied purposes depending on the site and topic. Some sites are annotated link lists that point to resources available elsewhere on the Web and offer some comments about the link. Other sites are agregators of the news. Some sites blog about certain topics that are of interest to the site owner. And yet other sites use the blog as a journal of personal as well as public events. Many weblogs offer opinion along with the links and news. Tools like Blogdex and DayPop make reading widely pointed to items more interesting as they also provide links to opinion and a personal touch to the information. Some of these elements of weblogs do touch upon the journalism frame of reference. One element of weblogs stands out, trust. Most often the users of weblogs return to the same weblogs for information, links, or insight as they know what to expect from the weblog and trust the blogger to provide this service. This is where there seems to be a strong correlation in my opinion. Journalists add depth, but readers return to the same news sources and journalists, because of the trust factor. I do not know that this one strong connection between weblogs and journalism makes it enough for me to think of weblogs as journalism (largely because of the amount of opinion in weblogs, which is antithetical to journalism in the American definition).

Mike DFeb 26, 2002 at 11:41PM

Complex dynamic systems, of which emergent systems are a specific class, are systems that are easier to observe than to predict. Emergent systems specifically are those that usually can't be examined without running the rules, whether in a computer or consciously. Emergent behavior from webloging, given the complexity of the components, is probably strictly observable rather than predictable.

There's also a pattern that emergent systems generate behavior that is beyond the understanding of its actors. A social insect is at a loss to explain why it does what it does, as is a cellular automata cell. I'm conjecturing here, but it's possible that behavior emergent from human activity is beyond human understanding.

Whether emergence is even possible is questionable: while all of the mechanisms are in place (signal propagation, indirect communication via environment modification (such as commenting features), etc) the components may be too complex themselves to allow emergence to occur. Imagine Conway's Game of Life, where the rules are modified to include a probability of randomization. At low probabilities, emergence will still occur; but at higher values, noise will result. We're pretty complex individuals.

Remember, we've had very limited success in noting emergent behavior in the context of sociology, group psychology, and other fields concerned with interaction. There are few reasons why observing emergent behaviors in webloging would be any easier.

kennyFeb 27, 2002 at 11:19AM

i like what marcus aurelius had to say :)

Ascent towards universality.

Actualizes what is latent in mind.

The subjective becomes objective.

Writer feels part of a community!

lakefxdanFeb 27, 2002 at 2:07PM

A small rebuttal. The 'warblog' community may have its faults, among them clearly being not knowing the history of the blog very well, and a tendency to snigger and self-congratulate, but it is not insular. I have been introduced to more new blogs daily by so-called warblogs, as well as continually being impressed with the collegiality and mutual respect of voices ranging from the Naderite left to the Randian right. (Chomsky left and Robertson right excluded by default.) Though the key binding principle has been a general support for the war in Afghanistan, critical voices regarding the expansion of the war, for example to Iraq, have not been excluded. At the same time the warblogs themselves have inspired more strong new voices to begin blogging. (Some of the faults of the community are simply lack of experience.) The luck of it is a smattering of semi-pros with links to paying journalism, which has given some of these folks a higher profile than a new blogger in any other sub-community could ever expect, even more than many respected bloggers who've been doing it for years (self included). There seems to be some envy directed that way that I can explain but not condone. All in all, I think it's an excellent example of the 'emergent community' factor. What I see is a wide range of people who are inspired to self-appointed punditry, which may be seen as a challenge to the 20th century trend of centralized, editor-controlled, old-boy-network mass media; but a century ago, at least, this type of writing and intellectual exchange was simply the norm. It's a return to earlier patterns of communication, only with technology that expands the audience far beyond anyone's imagination then.

kayjayFeb 27, 2002 at 3:22PM

On blogs as journalism; I believe blogs to be journalism in the original and most basic sense of the word--that being, the keeping of a journal. Bloggers are journalists, even reporters in the sense that they are keeping a journal in which they report on their world. For some, that may be the world in the broad sense, but for most it is the personal world. Call it a weblog or blog, call it a journal, call it a diary, call it a newsletter...whatever.

GasparFeb 27, 2002 at 3:55PM

Let me look into the future:
seeing how weblogs ("personal publishing" more than "journalism") are to print media what the car was to the railway, I am very hopeful that widespread, cheap optic fiber will some day take my "vanity" webcam one step further, AND shatter TV media empires monopoly.

anilFeb 27, 2002 at 5:46PM

What you and Meg both seem to be describing is a majority rules applied to information. The smaller the voice, the more unpopular, the less likely they are to be heard in this post-blog era.

Nope, just the opposite. F'rinstance, Google doesn't rank pages by popularity, it ranks them by relevance. You'll only get a popular page if you're researching a popular concept.

More to the point, the future personal information cloud will undoubtedly adjust to your preference for contrariness or subversion, and use that to filter what it presents to you. Perhaps a slider along the continuum between serendipity and familiarity, although the UI representation of that would be difficult.

So, in brief: Majority rules? Nuh-uh.

npFeb 28, 2002 at 8:53AM

I did not want to even be right in this case, let alone self-righteous (see my earlier comment in this thread),
but there are also emergent problems of the blog phenomenon. See the
recent waves around OddTodd and Heather.

walrusFeb 28, 2002 at 1:49PM

The thing that caught my attention about weblogs is the nature of how content flows and is weighted. This process is very similar to that of a neural network.

I wrote an article on my weblog about this recently. I think an "intelligent community" emerges from hyperlinked networks of information, with aggregation and search engines providing a form of consciousness for the community. This kind of community could form around journalists and journalistic behaviour as easily as for music fans or shockwave aficionados. I don't think it's any one thing, unless it's just a mechanism for sifting information intelligently, as a community. Weblogs are a subset of the way hyperlinked networks form in information. They're faster and lighter, and provide a familiar pattern of navigation and retrieval. This is why they're a good thing, evolutionarily speaking. But not perhaps the ultimate thing.

anonFeb 28, 2002 at 4:04PM

What you wrote, walrus, is better described as an "essay" not an "article". You could describe it as an article (it's a very broad word), but essay is much more accurate. Lots of this confusion about journalism -- which weblogs, by and large, don't even approximate -- could easily be cleared up with a closer look at journalism and the weblog phenomenon. That seems to have happened a bit here.

Emergence and Weblogs. As posed the question is just too narrow. Do weblogs, as a piece of the much larger phenomenon of Internet publishing, show characterisitics of Emergent systems? Well, no. Not by themselves -- not abstracted from the world they live in. Kottke seems to acknowledge this by way of caveat:

"Weblogs are but a part of a larger information network that includes public mailing lists, private mailing lists, Wikis, ezines, private email correspondence, instant messaging, IRC, Usenet, etc."

But, as with the question itself, he goes on to give too much credence to one trend in the subset of publishing using interactive media:

"The primary roles of weblogs in the system are to tie all these other enties together and provide a record-keeping function for the network as a whole."

To make the second statement true, you have to caveat again. Only some weblogs whose writers are interested in the community; only weblogs that use the phenomenal world for material; etc. I hate to fundamentally disagree, but weblogs aren't revolutionary. They are but a refinement of a specific trend in a larger movement that is Internet Publishing. Suprisingly, Howard Rehingold, a man with the credentials to point this out, didn't!

So, in the context of the question, you can analyze Internet Publishing along two different paths. It can be a sort of hyper-feedback loop that looks extremely similiar to the Letters-to-the-Editor model with Google standing in for Nexus. This could be put another way: lawyers communicating with one another via lawyerly journalistic tomes about judicial opinions using Lexus as their search -- which they all do! This path isn't terribly interesting, independent of the model. It's just a sped-up version of history. With speed comes errors and inefficiencies, which any weblogger worth his Blogger account is willing to cop to, and most journalists consider anathema. Journliasts would like to slow down the process of journalism, not speed it up. So let's take the other path.

We can also look at weblogs, as a subset of Internet Publishing, refining, giving personal context to and cataloguing communication about a plethora of topics from a multitude of sources. Perhaps the topics are journalistic, but hopefully not, for reasons stated above. The weblogs are adding context, perhaps expanding on pieces that, for the most part, already reside on the network. The context and additions become part of the network almost instantously (or, for purposes of the question, whenever Google indexes the page), available for anyone's evaluation, with a fairly low barrier to entry. Ya gotta know it's there to read it.

So, is this Emergent? Does this subset of Internet Publishing, or system of biopolitical feedback (depending on your particular fetishes), show signs of intelligence, without being directly collaborative or having top-down management? Indubitibly, yes. The value of this intelligence and its achievments are certainly debatable, and another topic entirely. (I'm not to big on it, as you might imagine.)

The kick is, the internet has been emergent for a long time; it was designed to be emergent. The engineers didn't call it emergence. Julie Peterson, who's been talking about this for a long time but wasn't taken seriously because she couched her ideas in New Age terms, didn't call it emergence. Type "awaken" into the this model's network recorder and see what comes up first. Now that intellectuals with Semantics degrees from Brown (looka the big brain on Steve) are discussing it, the rest of the Phi Beta Kappa society is taking notice. Good for that, the findings are potentially valuable. Not valuable right now, though.

I fail to see how any Emergent system could capitalize on it's slight achievements and how this intelligence is best utilitzed, as it seems so lower-order. But phones sucked when they were eight years old, too.

hkMar 01, 2002 at 9:24PM

There seems to be quite a debate raging on whether or not blogs are a revolution or evolution. Anon cites this debate and comes down squarely on the side of evolution: "I hate to fundamentally disagree, but weblogs aren't revolutionary. They are but a refinement of a specific trend in a larger movement that is Internet Publishing." With this conclusion, Anon, I fundamentally and respectfully disagree. I just wrote an essay (not an article) on my blog about this titled "Why I Blog About Trading." My basic premise is (excerpted from a much longer piece on many aspects of blogging):

In the beginning of web site development and web journalism the seductive metaphor by which we understood the medium was the magazine (or newspaper), and so creators of web sites modeled them on periodicals. The reason for the adaptation of print concepts was largely because culturally we made an error of association. Basically, since the web was (and is) predominantly a medium of language and words, culturally we analogized that it was much more like print than television. Also, because the skills needed for web production (art director, graphic designer, writer) were skills used in the print industries, most of the early dotcom workers had come from print backgrounds, naturally they brought with them the metaphors and biases of their skill histories. But, it turns out the web is not so much an incredible collection of magazines and newspapers, rather it is "language television" with as many possible broadcasters and producers as there are domain names...

A metaphor itself is really just an idea standard, and like technology standards, the choice of one over the other dictates certain outcomes-- the early choice of the print metaphor over the television metaphor on the internet dictated certain types of websites, FrontPage and DreamWeaver websites...

...It is the act of trying to insure that a website behaves as a newspaper-- namely that it is an archival product that accurately maintains its fixed narrative-- that makes the (old style) task of web maintenance so overwhelming and burdensome. As links all over the web change, in order to keep a web site "archival" or keep it up to the standards of print one must continually change and update the site. If one switches to the model of television, the burden of web production shifts from the never-ending task of keeping links alive to the much more effortless task of keeping links fresh. If you look at any blog on the net, entries from last month can be read but often not accurately used. The links will be dead. But the blogger will not be required (operating under the television model whether they are aware of it or not) to offer readers fixes, the blogger is merely obligated (if she wants to keep the audience happy) to continue the narrative in the "moving now." It is this radical change in metaphors that makes blogging a revolution, and not an evolution, on the Internet. The old site development tools were the hammer and saws of print, blogger (and radio and moveable type) are the first generation of tools that embrace the more accurate metaphor and model of television...

DruMar 02, 2002 at 10:52AM

I have a bit of trouble seeing weblogs as some kind of collective, emergant hive mind with a collective effect. At least, I have trouble understanding the whole of blogdom that way without things getting way too vague, way too fast.

The most useful way I've found of looking at blogs qua social change (not "revolution") is as a network of folks connected directly. This creates the potential for people to bypass the ideologically twisted mainstream media and spread accurate sources among themselves. I say potential because there's no guarantee that anyone will actually do this. When I look at weblogs in general, I mostly see a large range of opinion, all happening within mainstream ideology (which most people see as common sense). That's distinctly un-revolutionary, as I see it.

To really get to the bottom of an issue or event takes a lot of tedious research, systematic questioning, and hard work. Note that after that's done, one still has to communicate it in a way that people will understand its significance, which is even harder than doing the research in the first place.

That's just, like, my opinion though.

megnut writes:

First, when I say weblogs... I include MetaFilter, Plastic, Slashdot, and collaborative media sites like Kuro5hin.

At this point, I kind of worry that the term "weblog" has lost its usefulness and even its meaning, since it seems to mean "updated web site that has original content and links to other web pages." We might as well be talking about "self-published web sites", which is fine, but why do we need to stretch the term farther than it can go?

I think there's a lot of potential in collaborative work on the net, though again, I think if its going to cause any real (i.e. meaningful) changes, it has to happen on the basis of a different understanding of how meaning is produced. That said, I've spent a bit of time thinking about different ways of collaborating online, which folks may or may not find interesting.

A lot of my skepticism comes from the fact that almost every new communications technology (radio, TV, newspaper) was initially seen as amazingly liberating and revolutionary, but was ultimately coopted by commercial interests.

In Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Robert McChesney has an intelligent chapter about why the internet isn't as revolutionary (at least, not inherently) as folks like to think. Here's an article by McChesney discussing much the same theme.

An interesting way to approach the problem would be to try to understand how old media could be better used in new and different ways to undermine the monopolistic grip of the big 6 in favour of a more grassroots approach. In terms of overall cost, radio and print are unquestionably cheaper than the internet. They're also more widely accessible to folks in lower income brackets, and of course don't require a computer screen. :> Most people I know are much more likely to listen to a radio show or read a newsletter than to look at a web page.

The remaining advantage of the internet, then, is the fact that it isn't constrained by geography, and the fact that it is searchable. This begs the question: how might the internet and other media be combined to create something simultaneously more powerful, more versatile, and more accessible.

hotsoupgirlMar 07, 2002 at 8:56AM

ah, this old/new chestnut.

i also can't help but feel that the blogging phenomenon has more in common with the proliferation of paper zines over the past ten years or so than it does with journalism as such.

zines collages are constructed from torn-up magazines - blog collages are made up of links and soundbite memes.

to rehash, web publishing seems to have taken a similar trajectory to that of paper publishing - from an expensive, labour-intensive enterprise for which one would have to employ skilled professionals to one which can be executed in minutes (the production, if not the content) by a layman. blogging applications are like the office photocopier - free, simple, accessible - and enable anyone with net access to publish online with a minimum of effort. consequently, we're seeing the same wide diversity of publications emerging as could be observed within the zine movement - blogs arising from ego, boredom, the urge to create something new, the urge to ride the wave of newness, the desire for popularity, the desire to defy authority, to create discussion, to gossip, to disseminate a viewpoint. and occasionally (as with metafilter, plastic etc), the desire to inform.

but, as with zines, blogs are the medium. is journalism then the genre?

blogs are fantastic: if you have a modem, you can have a web presence. additionally, they can disguise a multitude of sins; if you're a singing pop sensation but a crap dancer with zero on-stage charisma, MTV will save you. a blizzard of jump cuts will make you snappy and give you rhythm. if you have trouble writing to length, arguing a point of view and maintaining a clear line of logic, then weblogs can help to hide these flaws.

personally, i'm counting on it.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.