% fortune -ae paul murphy

Blogging rings and The Truth

The best thing about blogging in public is that the readers don't let the bloggers get away with substituting bias and cultural certainties for research and thinking - except, of course within groups of the converted gathered around their own preachers.

I've recently joined (and will be leaving), for example, a group called the blogging tories - nominally a ring of Canadian conservative bloggers but actually more of mutual (who was Onan again?) uh ok, reassurance, society.

I was surprised, but it turns out that there are tens of thousands of these blogging rings - averaging on rough count from a small sample something north of 300 blogging members, and almost all of them completely uncritical of each other. Comments, when anyone bothers, are almost universally laudatory - reminding me rather too much of movie and TV representations I've seen of old time revival meetings.

Look, for example, at comments attracted by the 100+ bloggers at the Smirking Chimp and you'll find the cheering overwhelming and the critical faculty overwhelmed.

And that's interesting largely because it's the complete opposite of what we see in the big time political blogs like The Captain's Quarters or Power Line, where readers regularly fact check everything anyone says, and indeed a big part of the blog's appeal is founded on fact checking everything from anyone.

It's also the complete opposite of what happens in this blog: anything I say, someone will question - often forcing me to recheck things I thought I knew or to rethink a specific claim or opinion.

In effect, therefore, what I think I'm seeing with these rings is two completely opposite effects arising from the same technology: one driving deeper, fairer, analysis because readers question everything, and one whipping up frenzied support among the committed.

Use google's blog search facility, for example, to look for references to Congressman Foley and you'll find thousands of blogging sites and tens of thousands of comments, all engaged in a kind of mutual exhortation to greater exaggeration and emotional commitment to the denunciation of the common enemy (his party, not his behavior).

But then use the same tool to look for blogs comparing Windows to Unix and what you see in the comments to those blogs is almost always the opposite: people, even those who agree with the writer, demanding clarity of thought, factual reporting, and the actual evidence - not just assumptions about the reality or interpretation of whatever evidence the blogger chooses to present.

So what does this mean? I have no fixed idea - but my own assumption has long been that reader feedback and critical comment is what distinguishes an on-line column, or blog, like this one from its printed predecessors. Now I find this isn't true, or at least, that this isn't all of the truth -many of these blogging rings expose writers to significantly less critical review than even newspaper columns.

All of which raises some interesting, and so far unanswered questions: is there any commonality? are sites like bloggingtories.ca and groklaw.com models for next generation viral marketing? should we think of about these groups in terms of what we know about cults, or is the mutual adorathon more like a medical leech: bleeding off vitriol that might otherwise give rise to inappropriate action?

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specialising in Unix and Unix-related management issues.