July 21, 2005
Ethics and Preemption in Blogging: A Dissenting View
Posted by Will Baude

Larry Ribstein has a post arguing that as a matter of communal blogging ethics bloggers ought to check, to some degree, and see if other bloggers have made points similar to theirs, and if so, link to them. He writes:

Here's the example: Blogger F has what he thinks is an original angle on a point or subject that either (1) came out of his own head or work; (2) relates to a major news story of the day; (3) picks up on something said by Blogger A; (4) relates to a minor news story. Blogger F cites the stories in (2) or (4) or Blogger A but does not cite Bloggers B-E who have made similar or related points. Assume for the sake of this discussion that Blogger F does not know about B-E -- proceeding in the face of such knowledge would present a separate problem.

In the academic setting, this ignorance of the prior literature would be a bad thing, a sign of academic negligence. What about in blogging, particularly by an academic blogger?
I think a similar norm should apply, though applied differently in this different setting.

I respectfully but strongly dissent. ...

Roughly, Professor Ribstein is advocating that bloggers engage in some sort of pre-emption check before posting their thoughts, at varying levels of scrutiny. The goal is to look not only for those from whom the blogger actually got the story, but to find blogs that the blogger doesn't normally read that simply happen to be making a similar point. This is generally required in academia, but it shouldn't be here.
First off, while Ribstein makes several arguments about how the level of scrutiny should be changed from academia to blogging, I think he fails to marshal enough of an argument about why academic pre-emption should carry over to blogging at all. He suggests that it will "hel(p) everybody economize on time", but I confess I fail to see how. It sounds like this will force bloggers to spend extra time reading blogs (and, presumably their myriad incomprehensible comments), and I fail to see how they make the time back up. Ribstein also points out that the ignored bloggers B-E do not like being ignored. This is true enough, but inconclusive. People may not like the fact that I fail to read their blogs, fail to link to their tiresome law review articles, or fail to shower them with large sums of money, but that proves little from a blogging-norm standpoint. I don't like the idea that a norm will force me to read much more than the 175 blogs that in my RSS reader, and surely my preferences count too.
Second, this kind of norm really would impose serious supply costs on blogging, and would therefore cause a lot of people to blog a lot less. I used to be hesitant to respond to any post until I had read its entire comment-thread. Given the lengthy, senseless, and incomprehensible comment-dialogue that could ensue at joints like the Washington Monthly, this meant that I basically never linked to Kevin Drum's posts because even the intrasite pre-emption check was too costly. And this is nothing compared to, say, the 790 comments from Harry Potter fans that Heidi Bond accidentally attracted. As one expands this requirement to include technorati, trackback, and sitemeter checks the costs go up. A lot of blogs are, quite frankly, not very good, and if posting about X means I am ethically obligated to read them, I am simply not going to bother.
This burden will be enhanced by Ribstein's proposed hierarchy, where "guilt" for failing to do a blog-preemption-check will be stronger for posts about popular articles and blog posts than for obscure articles or original ideas. This means that in the cases where the pre-emption is burden is likely to be large, it is also more mandatory. The result will be a lot fewer piece of commentary about popular articles and blog posts, at least by those of us who already spend more time blogging than we would really like to.
Third, the value of this sort of pre-emption check is dubious. If somebody else was a blogger's original source or inspiration for a story, that is one thing, but if somebody has merely managed to produce a similar version of the same post, who cares? Or, more precisely, how many people care, and why can't they go use Technorati and an RSS reader themselves if they do?
Fourth, one of the great things about the current norm, where bloggers link to posts only if they find them interesting or worthwhile, is that it creates some very rough Hayekian hierarchy in the blogosphere. Bloggers get linked to because people think they write or think well meaning that people with similar tastes in writing and commentary can find blogs that fit their tastes. Why should the blogging norm reward with links and eyeballs some badly-written and uninteresting blog whose main virtue was writing about something that other people also wrote about, only better?
Fifth, I think bloggers generally have plenty of incentives to read lots of other blogs about a topic themselves, without the need for a pre-emption-check-norm. Those who want to write the "definitive" post on a subject will be more likely to attain their goal if they do some reading. Linking to other blogs creates the incentive that they will read and link back. Furthermore, many blogs develop fanbases precisely because they link to an interesting range and caliber of blogs-- indeed, readers are better served when a blogger selectively offers up things he thinks are interesting rather than blindly pasting links around to both signal and noise alike.
Ribstein's proposed pre-emption norm will lead to decreased blogging and wasted time by those who follow it, and decrease the quality and filtering ability of blog posts, all for dubious, if any, gain. It should not be followed or encouraged.

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» Blogging and the prior literature from Ideoblog ...
"Time to air a pet peeve that hopefully will contribute to discussions on blogging norms. Here's the ..." [more] (Tracked on July 21, 2005 @ 15:59)
» Blogs citing blogs from The Great Change: Turning Cathy into a Lawyer ...
"Through two posts on the Conglomerate (behold the irony...) I found a post by Professor Ribstein ass ..." [more] (Tracked on July 21, 2005 @ 18:55)
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