My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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in defense of BoingBoing (or why i’m not a journalist)

Last week, i posted a link to a news article about a high school banning blogging which Cory reposted on BoingBoing. In turn, Phil Gyford critiqued BoingBoing’s journalism and Clay worried about about the way memes spread. The commentary on Gyford’s post is rich with anti-BoingBoing attitude (as well as some very interesting dialogues).

So many aspects of this collection of material bother me. Embedded in all of this is an assumption that what any of us bloggers do is journalism. I, for one, am not a journalist and have no desire to be one. In the case of the post in question, i put it up there for my own reference and because it references the ongoing paranoia that people have about kids and blogging, questions of its educational value, etc. I don’t care one ounce about the truth value of that article – i simply care about the fact that people are talking about this, journalists feel the need to report on things this way. I’m not trying to be a reporter so much as i’m trying to document things that are of interest to me.

Truth be told, i hate writing, yet i write for a living. That said, blogging is not what i consider to be my writing. My writing comes in very formal structures, goes through peer-review and takes forever to reach its intended audience. My blog is my little land of ponderings, ideas, links, rants, etc. Much of what i write there is inexact at best. But it’s my zone, my tool of procrastination and documentation. I even take Many-to-Many more seriously than my blog because at M2M, i feel like i’m producing text for an audience (and it’s why i blog there much less frequently). On my blog, i’m writing it for me and those who might get a kick out of it. I don’t want to be told that i have to live up to journalist’s rules simply because i have an audience. I’d rather the audience go away than be expected to have to do something with that blog. The blog is for me and if it became a responsibility, it would go because the last thing i need is more responsibilities. Besides, me trying to make meaning about my life is neither of journalistic or academic caliber.

This connects deeply with what i think Cory and Xeni are doing (i don’t know the other BB people as well). They are blogging the things that matter to them. “A directory of wonderful things” is not meant to be a universally agreed upon notion of wonderful. Cory and Xeni’s posts are clearly what’s most wonderful to them. Thus, it absolutely kills me to see people bitch and moan about BoingBoing, as though it’s written for them. What makes BB special is that many of the quirky things that those characters blog are also appreciated by others. But it’s not about the readers, it’s not about journalism, it’s about what matters to the writers. Y’know what – i’m not interested in everything that they have to say either. But it’s their blog and i just skim past the things that don’t matter to me. And of course they don’t have open comments – no one wants to manage self-important audiences who bitch constantly. Yuck. It’s not about not wanting criticism – goddess only knows that they get plenty of that all the time in every form imaginable. It’s about not wanting to have everything you write be attached to constant negativity intended to make you miserable.

Perhaps i’m in a funny position because i know and love Cory and Xeni. Sure, they’re quirky characters and that comes through in their blogging. And yes, they have passions that border on obsessions. Sadly, i realize that the way people are treating them looks a lot like how people treat celebrities in this culture. And, honestly, that’s pretty sick.

I guess what it comes down to is that i don’t really understand why readers of blogs expect so much from bloggers. I know that i struggle with this and i know that it makes some of my fellow bloggers utterly irate. Why do people expect blogs to be journalism? Why do readers expect bloggers to be attentive to them simply because they read? This causes me excessive amounts of guilt. I literally do not have the time in the day necessary to respond to all of my email or to talk to everyone who approaches me because of my blog. It makes me cringe to be called a bitch because i can’t do it and i get so frustrated because people expect something from me that i can’t offer. People think that having an audience of people you don’t know is a blessing, but it’s also a curse. And i don’t know how to resolve the good and the bad in an easy way. But when i see people say horrid things about Cory and Xeni, it makes me sad because i know how much that stings. What motivates people to say these things? I mean, sure, i could go meta on the psychology of humanity, but that’s not good enough. It’s the difference between knowing and _knowing_.

::sigh::

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25 comments to in defense of BoingBoing (or why i’m not a journalist)

  • Obviously, I can’t speak for any of the people who posted comments on my piece, some of whom hold pretty pointless arguments (“Why can’t Cory/Xeni post more things that I like, and less of the stuff I don’t?”).

    But I think you’re confusing matters by saying people look at Boing Boing and/or other weblogs as journalism. The weblogs vs journalism thing has been argued over far more than it deserves – almost no weblogs claim to be journalism, and almost none are journalism. “Journalism” implies topical news and/or research/investigation, which makes up a tiny proportion of weblogs. So I’m not sure there are many people who “expect blogs to be journalism” (and anyone who does is going to be permanently disappointed).

    My point was that as a weblog becomes popular it may edge closer towards “publishing” – when the weblog is read by a huge number of people, mostly strangers. It may not be fair or expected by the writers, but I do feel this changes the nature of the weblog and, in turn, some of the responsibilities involved.

    Some people might never need to worry about these responsibilities – if a weblog detailing someone’s nightly dreams becomes inexplicably popular there’s little responsibility for accuracy required.

    But if, like *some* of the posts on Boing Boing, the posts are factual (and particularly if they’re of a campaigning nature, asking readers to take some action) there seems to be more of a responsibility to make the posts accurate.

    It may seem unfair that an external force like the number of readers affects how someone should write, but that doesn’t make it less true.

  • danah you make some really good points here. However, I think your friendship with Cory and Xeni makes you less objective; if you didn’t know them and BB posted misinformation about you, you might feel differently.

    In fact, I’d be really interested to know how you would feel if that were the case.

  • Not that I expect objectivity on a personal weblog, of course. ;)

  • danah, Cory and Xeni and the rest of BoingBoing are running a commercial venture. They aren’t kids with LiveJournals catching flak for what they wrote in their diaries. They should expect to be held to higher standards than the average blogger, even the average very popular blogger (like you). And as far as them being treated like celebrities–they are celebrities. They are free to pursue more low-profile activities should they choose to.

  • Phil – i definitely don’t want to go down the hole of is blogging journalism but i strongly believe that it’s only journalism or publishing when you believe that this is your practice. When it is not, why should you be treated as such? I write publications; my blog is not one.

    Is it solely having an audience that turns it into a publication? Why does the audience have the right to affect your blogging? Why are their responsibilities? As someone who never sought out an audience, i don’t personally get this. Fair or not, why does it make it true?

    [I actually read a blog of dreams.] What does accuracy mean? I mean, i don’t care if the dream blogger exaggerates – i don’t even know if she does. I just know that it’s fascinating. My blog is my opinion – what does it mean to be accurate in that context?

    As for BoingBoing, Cory reposted an article with meta-commentary about his experiences with blogging and education. One of his readers asked to put up the principal’s email. I’d bank money that if the principal wrote to Cory, he would’ve added that in the update region as well. I don’t see how this is irresponsible.

    Gina – when i think that folks that i know put up misinformation about me, i send them info to update. They always have. Xeni and i had a very heated disagreement about how we were perceiving each other’s position a while back. And we both updated constantly in that one.

    Ryan – getting ads makes it a commercial venture? There are adwords all over Blogger blogs, all over very personal blogs.

  • > Why do readers expect bloggers to be attentive to them simply because they read?

    I don’t find that shocking. That’s just part of our social norms for communication. Listeners expect speakers to be attentive to them, and this isn’t so different.

  • joe

    I think everyone should post whatever the fuck they want to… within the law, of course. If what they posts tends to be crap, even if popular crap, I won’t read it. Danah, you don’t write crap.

  • Ping – doesn’t that assume an understanding of an audience? What if my audience is larger than i intend it to be? Just because someone is listening, does it mean they get to assert rights over the person talking even when the person isn’t talking to them?

    I think part of what makes this so weird is that it’s not typical norms for communication. We don’t normally speak to unknown audiences and we don’t expect the people who overhear us on the bus to speak up. I’m not saying that this is about being overheard, but that’s an example of intended and unexpected audiences.

  • BB posted information that implied untruths about something I do for a living, and it negatively affected me on a personal and professional level.

    After a kindly-worded and thoroughly explained clarification email to the author, no updates were posted. Two months later I’m still explaining the truth to folks who ask me about it – and many still do, as far-reaching as BB is.

    This is why I hold influential publications (whether they asked for the influence or not) responsible on some level.

  • “an understanding of the audience?”

    If you review the familiar pablum about blogging* by the alpha bloggers, they all claim that a blogger surely understands his audience more than a dinosaur publisher.

    In theory, the audience is self-correcting, so to say. If a site promises to be a “directory of wonderful things,” and it stops being so to many people (which is what the comments to Phil’s post reflected), then the audience leaves. If the publishers want to match their audience’s expectations, then they listen and change– just like Ping said. The way I see it, being responsible to one’s readers is under-appreciated.

    *Here’s a quote from the latter-day populist Peggy Noonan which 47 people have bookmarked in del.icio.us: “In the blogosphere you lose both [status and respect] if you put forward as fact information that is incorrect, specious or cooked. You lose status and respect if your take on a story that is patently stupid.”

    I wonder if this is even true. Would that it were.

  • > Just because someone is listening, does it mean they get to assert rights over the person talking even when the person isn’t talking to them?

    Oh, i didn’t mean that. There’s a difference between expecting and asserting rights. For example, if we’re having a conversation and in the middle of talking to you i spout nonsense or suddenly walk away or scream at you or answer my phone, i would expect you to find that rude. That doesn’t mean you get to assert rights over me, but you do get to express to others your personal opinion of my rudeness or at least how my behaviour violated your expectations.

    I agree that some of the comments about Cory are unfairly harsh.

  • I think you’re splitting hairs there, Phil; your argument seeems based on the same notion of “journalism as truth” as before. What you might be cutting at is that we need some new word – one not quite as strong as journalist.

    We’re witnessing the rise of the “Dave Eggers” journalist – so real it breaks our heart. The New York Times has a deep past to draw on, a reputation worth preserving (both morally and financially). Cory only has a few years.

    In those years he’s captured our imagination, but he has also carried the weight of an entire publishing empire on his own. He’s tread new ground, and made a few mistakes as well. I’m sure he’s learned from them, and in turn, we do to.

    So; I think the criticism is just, if only because I believe that personal voice (on both sides) is why we’re all sitting around yappering on about blogging to begin with. Does Cory have to listen to it? Only if he wants to – that’s the upside of running your own empire.

  • Ryan – getting ads makes it a commercial venture? There are adwords all over Blogger blogs, all over very personal blogs.

    I didn’t claim that merely having ads clearly distinguishes commercial ventures from personal blogs. Obviously there is a gray area there which is getting grayer. That said, I think it’s pretty clear that BoingBoing is a commercial venture. They have formed a Limited Liability Company (Happy Mutants LLC), and they’re running a lot more than a few AdWords. They’ve embraced advertising even to the point of putting it in their RSS feeds. Given their traffic, I suspect they are making bank. None of which I have a problem with, until someone tries to claim that what they’re doing is no different from Jane Doe writing on Blogger about what she had for lunch.

  • A sheet of paper, a pencil. What is scribbled on that piece of paper (and arguably the role the person doing the scribbling takes on and gives his/her scribbles, and how the reader perceives it as well) is what makes it either a poem, a diary entry, a novel or a “news story”…
    We don’t call all those things “paper” do we? We don’t argue over whether the gossip column is journalism do we?

    So now our paper and pencils are freed from their earthly atoms, and we have all these linking and annotation features. “What it is” is what it is… quibbling over (most of the) details serves little or no purpose. Let’s use our time and energy figuring out all the wonderful things we can DO with it.

    :)

  • tony

    It’s kind of like the difference b/w a novel and a textbook. A journalist tries to impart info on a timely basis while the novelist tries to entertain,share or just express things to others. Sometimes they crisscross.

    Life’s too short to worry about others hopes and thinking danah-do your thing and let the dice roll. No one thinks, ” I wish I had done what they wanted me to do” on their deathbed. leave your mark and smile.

    Reader’s responsiblities? As a consumeristic society,we are used to “sellers” giving us the freedom to do anything once we “purchase” the goods. Is it any wonder why lots of folks have great expectations from the whole blogging experience. A blogger is selling to us,a message or experience(according to this thinking). We are thus entitled to communicate, criticize,(or weep-pester) the owner of the blog.

    It’s kind of a ghost-like existence, we are entities w/o bodies(boundaries) ,maybe that’s the problem?

  • Zephoria: “Is it solely having an audience that turns it into a publication? Why does the audience have the right to affect your blogging? Why are their responsibilities?”

    I see weblogs existing on a very rough continuum. At one end there are people writing weblogs read by a handful of close friends and family – a more regular equivalent of annual round-robin letters sent out to friends. These are small scale and their activity could be described as being closer to “conversation” rather than “publishing” (although I suspect many newbie bloggers actually see it as more like publishing because that’s the closest old-media analogy).

    At the other end of the continuum are, perhaps, corporate weblogs or weblogs from professional publications (eg, newspapers). Although these might have more conversational aspects than old-media (eg, trackbacks), they’re closer to publishing than a weblog for a few friends.

    If a weblog simply gains readers, to the extent the weblogger is talking to thousands of people daily, I’d say that comes closer to the publishing end of the spectrum, whether the weblogger likes it or not. If you’re talking to huge numbers of people, almost entirely strangers, what you say has a much greater impact than if you were talking to some friends. This is a greater responsibility.

    I understand that people might disagree with me when I think this responsibility calls for more checking of facts – maybe people should still feel free to post off-the-cuff half-truths no matter how many people they’re communicating with. But if they do so I feel they’re neglecting responsibilities (even if they haven’t asked for those responsibilities).

  • Jordan: “I think you’re splitting hairs there, Phil; your argument seeems based on the same notion of “journalism as truth” as before.”

    No, I don’t think it is. Journalism involves a behaviour – research, investigation, reporting of events. Publishing is the act of distributing some “content” (for want of a better word) to some people.

    Someone can publish words, and be responsible for those words, without ever having been involved in journalism.

    (Although, I admit, I’m using quite a narrow and idealised definition of journalism – much of “journalism” these days seems to involve nothing more than re-writing press releases…).

  • Boing Boing and Slashdot: Blogs as Tabloid Journalism

  • Jon – why compare the bloggers’ audience understanding to publishers? Does the blogger know hir audience better than s/he does when speaking in RL?

    I would argue that the BoingBoing folks are not even thinking of adjusting their posts to what people want – it’s not about that for them regardless of what others want it to be about.

    I totally think that people have the right to criticize, but i also think that the criticisms are unfair because they are rooted in unreasonable expectations.

    Phil – fair enough on your perspective. I think that people have the right to point other people to things regardless of whether or not they are true. It’s about information flow not simply truth. Then again, i don’t believe that truth exists and i believe that most journalists craft what they want to say using whoever it takes. I don’t assume truth in the NYTimes and i don’t assume it in BoingBoing – i simply see both as pointers to information. The difference is that BoingBoing is trying to just point people to things while NYTimes is trying to tell the truth.

    I also don’t think of it as publishing so much as pointing. It’s a reference and people like the references that BoingBoing offers, regardless of their truth value.

    Phil – i think that you have idealistic notions of journalism and you expect people who share material to large audiences to be journalists, both of which are really unfair. Yes, journalists re-write press releases. Yes, journalists insert their opinion and bias (hello, Fox). Yes, journalists only tell half-truths. Why is that a good standard? And why do you want to lump people who don’t identify as journalists as such and expect them to act as such?

  • jt

    Ms. boyd, the following are my answers to these questions, nobody elses:

    “What if my audience is larger than i intend it to be?”

    Don’t put it on a net of close to a billion people. Put out a private blog.

    “Just because someone is listening, does it mean they get to assert rights over the person talking even when the person isn’t talking to them?”

    First, nobody gets to assert rights over you, especially if you take full responsibility for your actions.. then they can’t… But, yes, you are talking to people and you don’t know whether they’ll have differing opinions and whether they’ll voice them. (Close down comments if you don’t want replies, or get software that allows you to determine who you want to hear from.) That’s still so, but to a miniscule extent, in a private blog.

    “Jon – why compare the bloggers’ audience understanding to publishers? Does the blogger know hir audience better than s/he does when speaking in RL?”

    I’m not speaking for Jon either, but I believe his point was that bloggers claim the near-non-truth that they always understand their audience better than mortals… And no, because one gets better (more real) feedback in RL, in most respects.

    “And why do you want to lump people who don’t identify as journalists as such and expect them to act as such?”

    I don’t view it as such, but as a problem where opinions and facts are either intentionally or unintentionally blurred… Most people want things presented as factual to be factual, and opinions to be pretty obviously not-intended-as facts.

    imho

  • It isn’t a matter of whether they want the responsibility or not. They have it. When a word from you can send hundreds of rabid flamers jumping down the throat of some poor guy because his words were misrepresented perhaps you shouldn’t be so quick to pull the trigger.

    Saying “It’s just a blog so I don’t have any responsibility” is a cop out. I expect that from 12 year olds, not adults.

  • jt

    Dare, saw your trackback to Many2Many and I don’t entirely disagree.

    But somewhat like Jon Garfunkel said there (Many2Many), it’s a question of wanting the freedom but not the responsibility. However, it’s more a case of wanting the benefits (ego gratification, job leads, whatever) without wanting the responsibilities that go along with being a (somewhat-self-)proclaimed “thought leader”.

    Wanting the benefits without the costs is a very adult problem to deal with, as is having leadership thrust on as much as it is sought out, don’t you think?… Sometimes more than one wants considering the burdens?

  • Zephoria – Sometimes Boing Boing points. Sometimes the posters write original material to make some point. Sure, BBers can point to things all they want – there are no facts to check in that action. But when they write original material, particularly if they’re encouraging people to, say, kick up a fuss about a particular topic, I think they have a responsibility to have made sure they know what they’re talking about. Sometimes they only think they do and it has to be corrected later.

    Yes, I am talking about an idealistic version of journalism. But just because journalism doesn’t always live up to those ideals, it doesn’t mean they should be cast aside. No, I don’t trust everything I read in the papers, but in a good paper I’ll trust that most of the facts have a basis in truth. I don’t trust Boing Boing (to stick with the same example).

    And, once more, I’m *not* trying to say webloggers are journalists. I’m simply saying that when they’re communicating with huge numbers of people they have a responsibility for being sure of what they’re saying, particularly if they’re trying to persuade those people to take a particular action.

    Of course plenty of weblogs, like print publications, are going to be biased and inaccurate, and always will be. I think the reason that Boing Boing has sprung to mind as my example in all this is that it would (rightly) be among the first to point the finger at old media publications who tell lies. Let he is without sin, and all that.

  • links for 2005-04-11

    Michael Kluckner Artist Writer – Vanishing BC Vanishing BC sounds like a great book; too bad the awesome website has no RSS. I will buy the book for $48! (tags: vanishingbc michaelkluckner rolandtanglao bc realestate) brevity.org — Lickr: Flickr,…

  • With an audience comes influence. With influence comes power. With power comes responsibility.

    And heck, we’ve all seen Spiderman, right?

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