Let me just start by saying that I realize I’m wading into shark-infested waters, dangerous territory no matter how I try to spin these next few paragraphs. But wade I must.
Until this morning, what I’m about to share have been private ponderings reserved for conversation with colleagues. Then I read the most ironic post by Michael Arrington. In it, he berates gossip site Valleywag for its coverage of the underbelly of Silicon Valley and the Web 2.0 movement.
Before I go further, I state for the record:
- I respect Michael for what he has created at TechCrunch. I may go about the business of reporting and analyzing the technology business in a manner very different from him, but there is no doubt that he has created a successful franchise.
- Valleywag leaves me conflicted. I like Owen Thomas, and even though he’s reported things I wish he hadn’t, he’s always been fair to me. Still, I’ve never thought Silicon Valley needed a gossip rag, an opinion I’ve held since The San Jose Mercury News carried the gossip column by my friend Chris Nolan in the 90s.
Then, came a post this morning. In his hyperbolic way, Arrington skewers Valleywag for its salacious coverage of Jimmy Wales’ breakup with his girlfriend Rachel Marsden. The irony comes in his conclusion:
There’s a market for this kind of content, obviously. And nothing can stop it except significant changes to our libel and defamation laws. That isn’t something I support. But the valley was a much nicer place to live and work before the days of Valleywag.
And, one might argue, TechCrunch and dozens of other blogs that stoop to a level of discourse that is undignified, disrespectful, and anything but social.
For much of the last year I’ve been struggling privately with a collection of essays about the nature of reporting, journalism, commentary, criticism, and opinion that is the blogosphere. Collected under the title of this post, this unpublished commentary is tied together by a simple idea: that social media, as it is largely practiced, has become entirely anti-social.
Thousands of innocuous blogs are little more than self-absorbed chatter of people we’ll never meet and wouldn’t want to. Their lives are important to them and to a cadre of friends and family, yet by blogging about themselves they presume an audience and a stature that far exceeds their reach. They may not be creating a broader social experience by sharing intimate details of their daily diet or by writing posts rather than visiting with friends, but these people feel good, even great, about their blogs, and that’s all that matters.
And then there are the blogs that assume (the operative word) a greater importance. Their writers are convinced by fact or fantasy that their world views matter to the greater populace. And so they opine. But with relatively rare exception, opinion alone doesn’t drive the traffic and blog ratings with which one lays claim to standing in the blog community. The problem, though, is that constructive opinion is difficult. Destructive criticism is easy. So, in order to post early and often, these people spew venom about all manner of things. And their most anti-social behavior attracts readers like onlookers to a traffic accident. Sadly, blog traffic and vitriol track each other.
Now, these aren’t popular opinions. I’ve had many a long debate with Naked Conversations author Shel Israel about the absence of civil discourse in the blogosphere, and largely, we agree to disagree. He contends that the blogosphere is one big, congenial conversation where the occasional jackass is tolerated, perhaps even admired, for the “success” of his or her blog. I contend that many of the most vocal bloggers and blog media companies have failed to assume the responsibility and transparency that comes with the leadership they have gained. That the blogosphere is in desperate need of the responsibility that comes with authority (or at least authority rankings).
And don’t get me wrong. There are many, many wonderful blogs providing a heightened discourse that is additive to the global conversation. ReadWriteWeb, WebWorker Daily, and Redeye VC offer smart, considered coverage of social media, the tech industry, and the startup ecosystem. Confessions of a Pioneer Woman is wonderful read and a refreshing break from all things tech. These stand among many intelligent, thoughtful, respectful, and provocative blogs.
The keywords: intelligent, thoughtful, provocative, respectful.
I’ve covered the information technology industry in a variety of capacities for nearly 25 years. I have read and written thousands of stories about product, companies, and people. Some of those pieces have been critical – very critical – but, I believe, never disrespectful and never personal.
And then along comes “social media” and the discourse gets nasty. Why stop at a reasonable critique of a business plan or a product when you can belittle the entrepreneur? Why just disagree with someone when you can name call?
When did technology analysis become personal? Why investigate and report when you can just opine? Why provide reasoned analysis when you can simply dump on any idea you didn’t think of? How is “stupid” an analysis of a product or idea? When did it become okay to call the subject of a story an asshole? Is it that bloggers write “posts” rather than “stories” that they need not adhere to some level of social decorum?
If serious bloggers want to be taken seriously, it’s time they grow up. It’s time they treat their writing as well as their subjects with dignity.