Like everyone else I know (or everyone else I know who doesn’t get out enough) I enjoy reading Boing Boing, the group weblog that’s become phenomenally popular over the last few years. It hits the spot for thousands of novelty-hungry geeks and is popular enough that it often doesn’t seem worth linking to something if it’s already appeared on Boing Boing. However, I think this vastly increased popularity changes the nature of Boing Boing, and the responsibility of those who write for it.
Glassdog recently questioned Boing Boing’s apparent lack of transparency when it comes to the ads that have smothered the site in recent months, and I don’t plan to repeat any of those points here. I’m more concerned with the content of some posts, and while I hesitate to step close to those endlessly rehashed, and often futile, journalism vs blogging arguments Boing Boing and its success makes them hard to avoid entirely.
However, let’s try to side-step them a little by referring to a wider domain — “professional publishing” — rather “journalism”. (I feel the need to head off another confusion here. When I use the word “publishing”, feel free to replace it with “conversations”, “pamphleteering” or even “broadcasting” if you’re particularly old school.) And by “weblogging” I’m using a rough shorthand which, for the purposes of this argument, I take to mean all amateur online writing.
One of the characteristics shared by professional publishing and weblogging is that, obviously, someone is always responsible for the content of the words or pictures. In publishing (whether this is newspapers, books, TV, etc.) the authors and publishers share this responsibility and time and money is spent on checking what is produced. In weblogging the author is generally responsible, although your local laws may also hold the ISP to various levels of accountability. No doubt there are exceptions, but in general webloggers don’t spend a lot of time checking their facts because:
- They’re writing in their spare time, and spare time is always scarce.
- Their weblogs generally don’t bring in much, if any, money, so there are few resources to devote to such things.
- Some of what they write doesn’t require a whole lot of fact checking — it may be entirely personal for example.
- They have so few readers that it doesn’t seem worth spending time on something that, for most webloggers, wouldn’t change what they wrote.
Sometimes you may think a particular weblogger would have done better to check their facts, or at least counted to ten, before posting, but, you know, live with it. This is apparently the brave new, way new, world of publishing and this freedom and spontaneity is what makes it so much fun.
But. The line between professional publishing and what we’re calling weblogging is far from clearly defined. It’s a wide and ragged gradient and there are plenty of sites or publications that don’t sit on one side or the other but float somewhere in between. One day Jason Kottke is an amateur weblogger, the next he’s technically a professional.
What determines where a site appears on the amateur/professional axis? In Jason’s case it’s the commitment to work full-time on his site and raise the money to pay for this. So the amount of time spent on a site and the amount of money brought in can affect the level of professionalism. Another factor that could push a weblog towards the responsibilities of professional publishing is the number of people reading it. If you’re writing, even in your free time, for 100,000 people you may have a lot more in common with a newspaper columnist than a weblogger whose only audience is a few friends.
With this greater audience comes a greater responsibility. If 100,000 people are reading your words you need to be more certain about what you say than if it’s just for a bunch of mates. I can’t help feeling that Boing Boing has stepped past the hazy mark where it can get away with publishing off-the-cuff posts about events in the world without spending some of the time and money we assume those ads are generating on checking facts. Let’s look at a couple of examples that might have benefited from more research.
In January there was a post about a man who was arrested for attempting to hack a tsunami appeal website. For Boing Boing the juicy story wasn’t that the man was arrested (as reported by BBC News a week earlier) but that he was arrested for using an unusual browser, which the company managing the donations mistook for a hacking attempt. It’s a great story, but Boing Boing’s basis for this report comes from a source on an unnamed mailing list. Cory’s introduction to the mailing list quote reports the event as fact, not rumour, and this no doubt contributed to hundreds of other weblogs in turn reporting the event as fact.
Leaving aside the mindless gullibility of all these other webloggers, when readers start assuming what you post is fact this is probably a sign that you should be checking those facts a little more.
The second example is Boing Boing’s post about a high-school principal who “banned blogging” because it “isn’t educational”. Part of the blame lies with the source story at the Rutland Herald whose over-eager sub-editors misleadingly headlined the story “High school bans blogging”. In fact the school banned a single website and the principal simply issued a sensible warning about children weblogging — as with any activity online, kids should be careful with the information they make public.
But Boing Boing got carried away with the newspaper’s headline, repeating it in theirs even though a cursory read of the newspaper article reveals that no one “banned blogging”. The newspaper claims the principal doesn’t think blogging is educational, and Cory could certainly have criticised him for this alone, although it would make for a less dramatic post. The repetition of the lie about the principal banning blogging, rather than his apparent opinion, is possibly also what prompted a reader to suggest people should email the principal to complain.
A professional publication should have called the school to verify the story before simply republishing it. Otherwise the publication would, perhaps, end up criticised on Boing Boing like the Indian news agencies that blindly repeated a hoax in February.
There’s even more need for a publication to check its facts if it’s going to suggest its many readers email their knee-jerk opinions to the story’s misquoted protagonist. Without checking facts the site has encouraged thousands of people to needlessly hassle a man who is trying to do a difficult job. Judging from the principal’s form response to correspondents it sounds like he was also misquoted by the Rutland Herald and has even used blogging in the classroom himself. Fact checking could have revealed this before the Boing Boing entry was published. Cory appears unsatisfied with the principal’s response, although I only hope he can emulate the principal’s relative calm should he find himself at the wrong end of a rabble-rousing and inaccurate post on a popular weblog.
That the original Boing Boing post has been updated points to one of the benefits of weblogs over less flexible old media: the feedback loop that is the global weblog conversation can collaboratively ferret out the truth of a story over time. However, this is no reason to skimp on the initial work. It may be acceptable to post a vague but interesting rumour as a last resort, in the hope readers can nail down the story over time, as long as the nature of the original post is made clear. But relying on reader feedback to correct an inaccurate story reported as fact would be lazy and irresponsible. Some people will only read the first version of the post and the story will have spread by the time corrections are made. Would we find it acceptable for a rolling TV news channel to begin the day broadcasting a bunch of rumours in the hope the facts can be corralled by primetime?
These are, of course, only two examples from the huge volume of posts Boing Boing publishes, and most of those entries about freedom of speech, cool gadgets and DIY Lego Star Wars porn remix fabrication can probably get away without much extra scrutiny. I don’t want to join any Boing Boing backlash — I enjoy the site and if Cory (the only Boinger I know) is anything to go by the site’s authors are a splendid bunch of people. But I do feel that the site’s success is currently providing a valuable warning of the difficulties involved in moving from amateur weblogging to professional publishing, when it should be a model example.