Once upon a time there was an island named Blogosphere, and at the very center of that island stood a great castle built of stone, and spreading out from that castle for miles in every direction was a vast settlement of peasants who lived in shacks fashioned of tin and cardboard and straw.
On the nature of innocent fraud
I’ve been reading a short book – an essay, really – by John Kenneth Galbraith called The Economics of Innocent Fraud. It’s his last work, written while he was in his nineties, not long before he died. In it, he explains how we, as a society, have come to use the term “market economy” in place of the term “capitalism.” The new term is a kinder and gentler one, with its implication that economic power lies with consumers rather than with the owners of capital or with the managers who have taken over the work of the owners. It’s a fine example, says Galbraith, of innocent fraud.
An innocent fraud is a lie, but it’s a lie that’s more white than black. It’s a lie that makes most everyone happy. It suits the purposes of the powerful because it masks the full extent of their power, and it suits the purposes of the powerless because it masks the full extent of their powerlessness.
What we tell ourselves about the blogosphere – that it’s open and democratic and egalitarian, that it stands in contrast and in opposition to the controlled and controlling mass media – is an innocent fraud.
The loneliness of the long-tail blogger
The thing about an innocent fraud, though, is that it’s not that hard to see through. Often, in fact, you have to make an effort not to see through it, and at some point, for some people, the effort no longer seems worth it. A few days back, the blogger Kent Newsome asked, “Who are the readers of our blogs?” His answer had a melancholy tone:
The number of bloggers competing for attention makes it seem like the blogosphere is a huge, chaotic place. But it only seems that way because we have all ended up in a small room at the end of the hall. When people refuse to converse with me or go out of their way to link around me, it hurts a little. Until I remember that while they aren’t listening to me, no one in the real world is listening to them either …
Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy writing. But sometimes it feels vaguely depressing to write something, put it up and wait anxiously for someone to reply via comment or link.
A handful of people responded to Newsome’s post, among them the long-time blogger Seth Finkelstein. Finkelstein’s tone was much darker. You sensed not only the resignation but also the bitterness that is always left behind when a fraud is revealed:
To be more personal here, I wrote because:
1) I was suckered into the idea that blogs were a way to “route around” media power, and to be HEARD.
2) I had delusions of influence.
3) The random-payoff of attention makes it seem far more effective than it actually is.
4) It’s painful to admit that you’ve wasted so much time and effort and pretty much nobody is listening.
Blog evangelism is very cruel, as it preys on people’s frustrated hopes and dreams.
My blog is read by a few dozen fans … I’ve come close to shutting it down at times, and will finally reach the breaking-point eventually.
The powerful have a greater stake in the perpetuation of an innocent fraud than do the powerless. Long after the powerless have suspended their suspension of disbelief, the powerful will continue to hold tightly to the fraud, repeating it endlessly amongst themselves in an echo chamber that provides a false ring of truth.
How to get a link from an A Lister
I met Seth Finkelstein recently. We had both been invited to participate in a day-long conference about “hyperlinking” at the Annenberg School in Philadelphia. The conference’s first panel was moderated by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who also writes the popular blog Pressthink, which has the following tag line: “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine.” During a brief Q&A session at the close of the panel, a woman in the audience expressed frustration about getting bloggers like Rosen to link to her site. She asked the professor if he had any suggestions. Rosen said that the best way to get a link from him is to write a post about one of his posts. He carefully monitors mentions of his work in other blogs, he said, and he frequently provides links back to them, at least when they have some substance.
Rosen’s answer could not possibly have been more honest. The best way, by far, to get a link from an A List blogger is to provide a link to the A List blogger. As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated – with the best of intentions, mind you – by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite. A blog-peasant, one of the Great Unread, comes to the wall of the castle to offer a tribute to a lord, and the lord drops a couple of coins of attention into the peasant’s little purse. The peasant is happy, and the lord’s hold over his position in the castle is a little bit stronger.
“Ghost of Democracy” is a wonderful term. It perpetuates the innocent fraud even as it exposes it.
One day, a blog-peasant boy found buried in the dust beside his shack a sphere of flawless crystal. When he looked into the ball he was astounded to see a moving picture. It was an image of a fleet of merchant ships sailing into the harbor of the island of Blogosphere. The ships bore names that had long been hated throughout the island, names like Time-Warner and News Corp and Pearson and New York Times and Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast and McGraw-Hill. The blog-peasants gathered along the shore, jeering at the ships and telling the invaders that they would soon be vanquished by the brave lords in the great castle. But when the captains of the merchant ships made their way to the gates of the castle, bearing crates of gold, they were not repelled by the lords with cannons but rather welcomed with fanfares. And all through the night the blog-peasants could hear the sounds of a great feast inside the castle walls.