Weblogs and Open Source Software
Will Bunch at Attytood has an
about the attitude that some in the mainstream media have toward weblogs. Basically, that Real Reporters™ are trained in Real Journalism™ and do things like check facts with multiple independent sources, whereas bloggers are just average bozos who use the Internet to spread rumors and discuss Desperate Housewives.
Where have I seen this attitude before? Oh, that’s right: when Open Source Software started seriously gaining acceptance.
It’s true that traditional companies that write closed-source code have some advantages: they interview candidates to make sure they know how to program; they have the staff and budget to test the software they write; they can buy a whole set of test machines, to make sure that their software runs on every supported platform; they have procedures in place to make sure that the documentation has been written before the product ships, and so forth.
Likewise, newspapers, TV news shows, news agencies, etc. have the same kinds of advantages: they can interview candidates and make sure they really did graduate from journalism school; they have official press passes that let their people in to newsworthy events; they have the budget to send people to Baghdad or Tokyo or Jerusalem or wherever news is happening; they have internal policies to ensure that any reported facts have been confirmed by multiple independent sources, and that opinion is clearly labeled.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But with open source software, a weird thing happens: once you invite everyone in the world to contribute to your project, you start getting an influx of ideas and contributions from all over. Some people might rewrite large sections of your code; others might just fix a line in the documentation and move on. Still others might look at how you solved a particular problem and use it in their own projects.
A similar thing is happening with weblogs, the same sharing, contributing, borrowing. It’s the Internet age, and everyone’s got a printing press.
In the OSS world, everyone wants people to use their software. It’s a thrill to learn that your package has been included on the latest Debian CD, or that it’s been given a passing mention in a trade magazine, or that one of the demigod hacker rock star has noticed you.
If you have a weblog, of course you want everyone to read you. It’s a thrill to learn that your article has been linked to from Slashdot or Think Progress, or that it’s been mentioned in Time or the Washington Post. Even if you just comment on one of the bigger weblogs, you can still feel a thrill when you read the words, “Update: in the comments, reader [your name here] says…”
And somehow, a thousand random strangers who’ve never met can get together to build something better.
If you’re a professional journalist, you get the benefit of doubt a lot of the time: your newspaper wouldn’t have hired you if you were a complete incompetent, would it? But the thing about the blogosphere is that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” applies to reporting as well. Any newspaper article, especially if it deals with a popular subject, might find itself the object of scrutiny by thousands of people taking it apart to try to find mistakes.
And they’ll write about it. And tell their friends. Think of it as a “Letters to the Editor” page that could fill the New York phone book.
Then there are the webloggers who like to play investigative reporter and ferret things out. They may not have press passes, and the White House may not return their calls, but they can use Google like the rest of us, and they can collect articles that have been published elsewhere, and put two and two together. And if it’s good enough (because the blogosphere, like the OSS community, is a meritocracy), it’ll get picked up by other people and disseminated far and wide.
So where does this leave traditional journalists? Are they obsolete? No, of course not. They still have the journalism degrees, the White House access, the travel budget… and the editors.
When news or ideas travel through the blogosphere, it’s via a self-selecting process: each person who passes it on, by posting a link to the story or whatever, is saying “I think this is worth reading”. Then again, that’s exactly how rumors and urban legends spread as well. When a story is published in a reputable newspaper, it has the editor’s stamp of approval. The editor is, in effect, telling us, “This is worth reading. It’s either important or entertaining, and it’s also true.”
I’m sure that after a teething period, the traditional media will come to accommodate the blogosphere, and even exploit its strengths: it can be good at collecting scattered information, or amplifying interesting news published in obscure places. And, of course, it’s a watchdog that looks for errors. And that’ll work to everyone’s advantage. I’m sure that every editor wants “I read it in the paper” to mean more than “I heard it from this dude.”