Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Blogger Code of Ethics?

Thanks to Doc Searls for pointing me at the latest take (and a thoughtful one) on the invitation by Microsoft of bloggers to the Mobius 2002 conference. This entry in the debate is from Sheila Lennon. So much has been written on the topic that I really think there is little more to say... on the topic itself. But it is interesting that there is so much debate about whether or not bloggers should follow a "journalistic code of ethics" -- in other words, what I think is interesting is the meta-issue...

The medium of the web has become an important source of information. I was reading J.D. Lasica's article on where "Net Luminaries Turn for News" and realizing how fundamental the Net has become as a news source. Jaron Lanier answers,

Apart from my time driving in my car, the Internet is my only source of news...

I wonder how many people can say the same? I still like the feel of paper and magazines -- and I spend a lot of time on airplanes -- so I haven't become as extreme as Jaron. But the Net is one of my primary sources. And I have to admit that blogs have become an increasingly important way for me to filter that news. If bloggers are going to serve as the front line for filtering news, we have to have some sense of where their allegiences are. In the Microsoft case, people complained that by accepting Microsoft's gifts, and the all-expense-paid trip to Mobius 2002, that the bloggers would be biased. Or at least would have the appearance of being biased. I submit that this is an OLD MEDIA issue.

Reader and Author
I am not, by the way, saying that the bloggers were not influenced by Microsoft. In fact, reading accounts from the events that occured, I can only conclude that many were influenced. However, I say this is an old media issue because of the difference in the relationship between reader and author in the old media vs. the new media.

In the old media world the the relationship between reader and author is anonymous and abstract. I am aware that there is an individual named Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal, but I will never interact with Walt. I won't meet him, I won't speak with him, I won't exchange email, and he won't respond to anything in my blog, even if my blog is about something in his. Now this says something about mass markets, but it also says something about the assumption that mass media makes about its relationship to its readers. In this abstract and anonymous world of mass media, the only thing that I have to go on in trusting that Walt Mossberg is not a shill for Microsoft is the reputation of the publication and the journalistic code of ethics that I expect them to follow.

However in the new media I can have a very different kind of relationship with authors. I can expect to meet them in real life. I can expect them to respond to my email. I can even expect that they will respond to something I have written in my blog. Even if none of these things happen, my expectation about the relationship is different -- there is a conversation and we are both part of it and I have as much right to be heard as they do. Because my information is not filtered by a small number of mass media outlets, I also have the right to decide whether or not I will hear them. This means that I can make a decision about whether or not I believe that a given blogger is a shill for Microsoft based on my personal relationship with that individual blogger -- not an evaluation of the reputation of that blogger's parent organization and its journalistic code of ethics.

Some may answer that this model is not scalable -- that it is simply not possible for bloggers to know everyone that reads their blogs. Or even for every reader to know every person whose blog they read. I agree with this but at the same time I believe that trust networks naturally evolve, and that these networks will allow certain bloggers to reach much broader audiences -- but still because of a personal relationship. Doc Searls is a good example of this. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Doc, and I believe I have a good understanding of his strong personal sense of justice and honor. There are people reading my blog who know me, but may never know Doc. The fact that I vouch for Doc will, over time, cause those people to accept my trust in Doc as their own.

Trust each other, not institutions...
People are already building web based systems to support the development of these trust networks, and some of these will prove to be useful formulations in the digital world of the basic mechanism that has worked for human beings since we began our long path toward "civilization." Ultimately trust in each other as people is so much more powerful than our trust in institutions and rules that the call for bloggers to follow some journalistic code of ethics will appear humorous to future generations of netizens.

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