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The truth of weblogs

This article appears in the issue June 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 6]

By David Weinberger

Everyone knows that there are serious problems with objectivity. At last we may have a corrective, a way of thinking that doesn't fall into the obvious traps. Oddly, it's little ol' weblogs that are leading the way.

The worst problem with objectivity occurs when it insists that it has a unique purchase on the truth. Objectivity is certainly important, but it's just one way of seeing the world among many other useful ways. For example, when you take your previous photograph of your departed grandparents to the photo restorer to remove the damage done by drippings from your child's peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you want the restorer to be professional and objective when she goes to work on it. But when objectivity sees itself as the only way of thinking ever worth listening to, it's just being obnoxious. In fact, it's being so obnoxious that some of us make the mistake of sending it to its room as if it had nothing at all to offer.

But objectivity has plenty to offer. It attempts to remove the individual's own biases so we can see the world as it really is. Of course that's impossible to achieve perfectly, but it can be done in part: I can pull myself together, try to suppress my deep emotional reaction to the photo of your grandparents, and do the work that needs to be done. Or, I can report on an event while trying to avoid my own political and emotional stance. But, a person's objectivity is always temporary and never perfect. Thankfully, it lasts long enough and works well enough that there's a real difference between the New York Times and the Fox propaganda network.

Objectivity has looked particularly good when the only alternative was subjectivity. The care with which an objective reporter put together a story—interviewing sources, getting statements by officials on the record—gave the story heft that could rarely be matched by a report by someone who only talked about how the issue seemed to him or her. A Norman Mailer or Hunter S. Thompson in their primes could write subjective pieces that bested the best objective reports, but such writers are the rare exception.

But the Web is giving us a new possibility: intersubjectivity. Before the Web, we could undertake the effort to find multiple viewpoints, but it was hard and the viewpoints were frequently fragmentary or pre-filtered. With the Web, and particularly with weblogs, we can not only find lots of points of view but we can get to know them over time and see them interrelated over "space." So, I can learn that weblogger A is generally trustworthy by reading her weblog over the course of weeks or months, and I can see that her comments on today's particular topic are worth taking seriously because others are replying to her. Weblogs as persistent conversations give us an intersubjectivity that actually can match the virtues previously solely claimed by objectivity.

This means that the risk of corporate weblogging is lowered. The biggest risk is that an individual weblogger might get something wrong, perhaps deliberately and maliciously. Suddenly, what looked like a good way to spread information becomes a source of pernicious misinformation or even disinformation. But a risk assessment that looks only at the effects of individual webloggers is missing the important phenomenon: Weblogging as a persistent conversation provides a balance of views with the same self-correction mechanism that's built into conversation itself. There is still a risk that wrong information can be put forward, but objectivity never escapes that risk entirely either. And the intersubjectivity of weblogging has some benefits that have to be weighed against the risk: It encourages innovative thinking, it shoots down bad ideas quickly, and it allows natural talents to surface and flourish.

But even the idea of allowing many to speak goes against our bias in favor of single-source objectivity. Because objectivity requires special, trained practitioners, it generally has been undertaken by organizations that support themselves by distributing the information the practitioners have gathered: broadcasters. Thus, objectivity and the broadcast model have traditionally been tied. Intersubjectivity is a slap in the face to broadcasting, however. Perhaps the greatest benefit of intersubjectivity is that it gives voice to everyone who wants to speak a source of tremendous value—knowledge--that's been dormant for way too long.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" , e-mail self@evident.com


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