Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Dvorak Pulls a Coleman

Via Michele at A Small Victory today, I discovered a column by John Dvorak, from PC Magazine, which virtually channeled the whiny petulance of Nick Coleman. Somewhat surprising, because I used to read Dvorak, and know he actually has the ability to be insightful and clear-headed (so there the Nick Coleman analogy breaks down).

If you don’t want to read it, let me sum up: Blogs are bad. They ruined the internet. Common people shouldn’t be allowed to post to the Internet. If you read someone on the Internet, he’s probably a freak pretending to be normal. Disagreement scares me.

Michele does a fine job of tearing apart the article itself, which is really no more than a whine.

Dvorak’s central theme is a “Ones and zeros” analogy, used to represent opposing political perspectives in the blogosphere. Ones and zeros. Binary. That’s computer related. Get it? Well of course we get it. It’s hardly subtle. But it would be a little more clever if it was a also accurate. Like most of Dvorak’s kind in the Old Media (that "old" bit has to sting), he seems to have focused on only a few over-heated partisans, and missed the rest of the picture entirely.

If there is one analogy that does not work in the blogosphere it’s “binary.” Pick an issue… say, gay marriage. Surf down my blogroll, which is heavily weighted to the right side of the blogosphere. Try to separate those blogs into only one side of a binary or the other. When finished, pick another issue. Say, preferred presidential candidate. Try to separate them again. You’ll notice that we’re only two issues old, and you’ve already had a few blogs jumping that binary separation (you’ll also notice at least two blogs don't fit on either side of your binary list). Go on to a third or fourth issue, and you’ll end up with something that looks a lot less like a binary separation, and a lot more like a healthy diversity of opinion.

Speaking of great divides, Dvorak represents a generational divide in my opinion. He’s perfectly capable of grasping the blogosphere as far as his intelligence goes. But it so shatters his long-standing view of media – and of the Internet – that he responds emotionally rather than rationally, displacing an attempt to understand with simple prejudice. It's less that he doesn't get it than that he doesn't like it. He liked the old way better.

This is not the first time I have encountered this kind of reaction. In the tech world it’s common.

When the World Wide Web came along, it was a novelty at first. But in a stunningly short period of time, it had assumed a central role in the tech departments of even the most tradition-minded companies. This lead to the disgruntlement of many workers who had invested heavily specializing in technological expertise that now seemed obsolete (as an aside, many of the rumors of obsolescence were greatly exagerated). I remember sitting across a meeting room table from a team of Cobol developers who were stunned when the business sponsor of a large new project referred to their system as “legacy.”

And that’s exactly the sort of reaction we’re seeing from Dvorak here. He feels threatened. Suddenly he’s “legacy” media. He spent the 80’and 90’s as a hip sage of the New Age. And now he’s Morely Safer (Or perhaps Andy Rooney).

Opinion journalism is obviously the most prone to becoming “legacy” in the age of the blog. Everyone out there has an opinion. A lot fewer have opinions people want to read regularly, but then this is true in the “legacy” media world as well.

There is no writing on the wall that says popular opinion columnists from the legacy media will not also thrive in the blogosphere. Some “legacy” media types have become veritable stars of the blogosphere – James Lileks, Mark Steyn, Andrew Sullivan, lots of writers from National Review. The difference isn’t simply in the medium in which they deliver their thoughts. It’s that the marketplace of ideas just got a lot more competitive.

In the IT world we’re very familiar with this. My software development company isn’t just competing with guys from New York and Silicon Valley anymore. It’s also competing with teams in India, China, the Phillipines, and Brazil. It’s frightening and threatening to realize that your competition for any single project is so large it could populate a decent sized city. So I understand where Dvorak’s emotion is coming from.

On the other hand, Dvorak’s problem is deeper than simple prejudice. In one sense he’s simply flat-out wrong. Oddly enough for someone who has previously written about similar things in technology, he can’t seem to grasp how open systems work. He can’t understand how a good idea can compete with a bad idea unless some editor sorts it out for us.

Dvorak should swallow his pride and start learning about the blogosphere, instead of whining at it. This speech by Alan at the Command Post would be a decent place to start.


Blogger R-Five said...

Radio is a technology. Talk radio is an application of that technology, created to support an unmet demand for other points of view. The Internet is a technology. The Blogosphere is an application of that technolgy created to support an unmet demand for other points of view, and there are many. Hawk/Dove, pro-choice/pro-life (and variations within), liberal/conservative, etc.

If anything, the MSM is binary: "Bush bad! Kerry good!"

8:48 AM  

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