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Cory Doctorow’s big tent

Cory Doctorow: blogger, science fiction
writer and digital rights activist.

It was an outrage. In March, celebrity US blogger Arrianna Huffington caused a squall of controversy when she cobbled together quotes criticising the Iraq war from various articles and interviews with George Clooney, gained approval from Clooney’s publicist and ran the post on thehuffingtonpost.com under Clooney’s name, with a few of her own words tossed in for good measure. It was perceived as an assault on the central tenets of journalistic professionalism and drew fire from many quarters (leading to her qualified apology when the great man arced up). But The Huffington Post is a blog, not a newspaper of record, and Ms Huffington had as many defenders as accusers during the affair.

To a large extent it is a false debate, this blogger versus big media beatup. But it hasn’t stopped the rival camps squaring off. In one corner we have the old guard, the mainstream media (or MSM, as the bloggerati has derisively badged it). This effectively refers to media icons such as the New York Times, commercial television networks and, in Australia, the Murdoch, Fairfax and Packer empires. In the other corner stands an “army of Davids”, as Glenn Reynolds (the American law professor and founder of the popular libertarian blog, Instapundit) named his book about the blogosphere (the implication being that big media is a Goliath to be slain at the hands of innumerable plucky bloggers).

For a penetrating insight into this evolving spat, I spoke to Cory Doctorow, the Canadian science-fiction writer, digital rights activist and co-editor of BoingBoing.net, one of the most read blogs on the internet. Apart from his involvement with Boing Boing, Doctorow is best known for his advocacy of the free exchange of digital information, unshackled from arcane copyright laws. He is a vociferous advocate of the Creative Commons licensing system, which was devised to accommodate the new digital era. And, much to many people’s dismay, he releases all of his science fiction works in hard copy and online simultaneously.

I spoke to Doctorow while he was in Australia for the Ideas Festival in Brisbane.

PR: As a journalist, I’m interested in the accuracy of information. How do you view the veracity of, say, Wikipedia or Arriana Huffington’s recent ‘Clooney’ post?

CD: The important thing about a system is not how it works when it’s running as intended but what happens when it fails. Does it fail gracefully or does it fail catastrophically? For me, Wikipedia is an example of a technology that fails very gracefully. If you go to a Wikipedia article and there’s something inaccurate in it, you can fix it. If you want to discover what the controversy looks like around the article, you can review the history of the discussion that took place along the way to arriving at the text that appears on the front page. I think that’s a very graceful failure mode.

If a blog post is inaccurate, you can go to Technorati or Google blog search and see who’s linked to that blog post and what they’ve said about it. In some blogs, like the one I co-edit (BoingBoing.net), underneath each post is a link to all the posts linking to it on Technorati, including the ones that disagree vehemently.

I think those are very graceful failure modes. Now, obviously we need new kinds of media literacy so people understand that these tools exist and will help them to sort out the truth from supposition, or help them arrive at their own truth. But the idea that there is such a thing as a single, unitary, objective journalistic truth that journalistic organs can achieve is untrue. If that were the case we wouldn’t be concerned that there is only one newspaper in town. We wouldn’t be concerned that Brisbane only has one paper and it’s a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. We’d say, you know, as long as they adhere to journalistic standards, obviously they’ll publish truths identical to the truths that they would publish if they were competing with five newspapers with varying points of view.

You write for all media, big and small. I’ve read a lot of ‘journalism versus blogger’ articles lately, but surely there’s good journalism and bad journalism going on in both. Isn’t this likely to continue, as mainstream media gets used to blogs and blogs become more mainstream?

The thing about blogs isn’t whether people can do dumb things with blogs. It’s what happens when people do dumb things with blogs. If your magazine publishes something that’s untrue about someone and I correct it on my website, that’s a lot harder for someone reading your magazine to discover. Whereas, if your website publishes something that’s untrue, it’s a lot easier for people who are reading your website to discover other websites that are commenting on it.

This whole thing isn’t about whether bloggers are capable of doing good journalism. It’s the fact that, in many instances, print journalism is being destroyed by the new economics of classified advertising and other forms of advertising. Everyone likes daily newspapers, but no one wants to pay $10 to read them every day. If all classified advertising migrates to Google, Craigslist and eBay, that’s what they’ll cost.

When print journalism is no longer economically viable, what do we do to support that role that print journalism has always had in blog land?

How have the publishing and music industries reacted to your e-rights activism? And, more specifically, how do your book publishers feel about you releasing your work simultaneously, for free, online?

My publisher – Tor Books, a division of Holtzbrinck – has been delighted. As the largest publisher of science fiction in the world, they have tremendous interest in finding out what electronic text is good for and who’s willing to pay for it, and in what ways. Thus far, a combination of their own corporate policies and writers’ natural paranoia about what happens when their works become available on the internet has meant that pretty much the only releases that they’ve done, with a few limited exceptions, have been locked up in copy and use restrictions. Basically they’ve been files where everything that wasn’t mandatory was prohibited. As a result, they couldn’t learn anything from their audiences. In the instances where they guessed wrong or failed to comprehensibly guess about all the ways a potential customer might want to use a piece of media, they had no opportunity to discover what new potential businesses were lurking in electronic text distribution.

More than half of the potential customers for books are people who don’t set out to buy books – people who discover them serendipitously at the chemist or in the grocery store. In the US, those sales channels have essentially shut down. Book publishing has experienced more than a 50 percent drop off. Having electronic texts restores some of that serendipity. It allows fans to do what they do so well: evangelise the works they love.

You mentioned serendipity and I often think that’s one of the hallmarks of the internet. The internet is just a technology, and a blog is merely a delivery tool. But blogging is undeniably a culture. What do you like least about the blogosphere?

I try not to dwell on the stuff I don’t like. There’s a lot that I like. I guess the thing that bothers me the most is the penchant among bloggers to write their headlines and leads in the manner of magazine writers writing for glossies. Those magazine writers have long delighted in obscure but funny headlines.

The problem with that is when your text appears in an RSS aggregator, or some other de-contextualised element, it’s invisible. I think this is characteristic not just of blogging but of much electronic publication. I get a lot of emails with subject lines that are meant to be cute or clever but are vastly uninformative and often indistinguishable from spam.

It is epidemic across internet publishing that people publish in ways that don’t respect the time of their readers. They publish in ways that are clever at the expense of being clear.

Paul Ryan is an editor and senior writer at Australian Anthill.