One result of the whole Washington Post comments debacle is that, as Jay Rosen puts it, “We’re going backwards in our ability to have a conversation with the Washington Post.” The Post circles its wagons against the barbarians; its online readers and critics storm off, convinced more than ever that the newspaper “doesn’t get it.”
The word “conversation” is at the heart of the ideals that so many of the brightest lights and most ambitious prophets of blog-era journalism embrace. It began this trajectory in the hands of the Cluetrain Manifesto‘s authors; today it represents the hope for a new kind of post-media world in which a vastly broader spectrum of voices can speak and be heard.
Observers for whom “blog” is synonymous with “political blog” are often skeptical of this vision, because the conversations in the political blogosphere have become so closed-ended, repetitive and intramural. Political blogging in the rigid partisan landscape of 2006 too often resembles the parallel enforcement of party discipline. (Yes, there are many exceptions, but it is sad that they are exceptions.)
But you can find exchanges today that model the possibilities of a post-media conversation — where the actors in a field talk directly to each other, engaging and challenging and correcting each other. One place you can find them is the software world. It certainly has its feuds and its entrenched patterns of provocative trolling (just drop an anti-Macintosh comment and watch the group-mind hive buzz on cue). But, in following this field, I’m amazed, day after day, to see rivals and competitors lace their barbs with friendly banter and honest efforts at persuasion, or to watch critics and their subjects take on the awkward but fruitful back-and-forth that can actually move readers a few notches closer toward the truth.
One little example from this past week: As the Post was shutting down its comments, a tech-industry blogger named Mike Arrington, whose TechCrunch has become a hot water-cooler for the Web 2.0 crowd, was posting a critique of Ning — the roll-your-own Web application factory backed by Marc Andreessen that launched in October. Arrington wrote, in Ning — RIP?: “The reality of Ning is that it’s lost whatever coolness it had, no one uses it and Ning is going to have a very hard time getting people’s attention when they finally do roll out better functionality.”
Diego Doval is a developer for Ning. Yesterday he responded to Arrington (I found the link via Dave Winer). The gist of his post is that Arrington basically got it all wrong — the facts and the spin. But Doval didn’t flame his critic; he just patiently walked through his points and thanked Arrington for inadvertently showing him and his company how much better a job it needs to do to get the word out about its product. Scroll down to the comments on Doval’s retort and the first one is from Arrington — thanking Doval for the great post.
Now just imagine how this sort of conflict would have played out if we were dealing with, say, a liberal blogger who mangled some facts and a conservative critic (or vice versa).
Of course, the emotions engendered by political debate are of a different order from those inspired by software development. But, you know, they’re not that different — there’s pride and ego and anger and passion about the future in both realms. What the software universe lacks (except, perhaps, on some old-line corporate campuses, in certain corners of the open source world, or in the extremes of Mac fandom) is the emerging tribal behavior patterns of the political blogosphere’s ideological camps. It’s a lot easier to have a real conversation when you aren’t looking over your shoulder at a crowd that expects you to toe a particular line.
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