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Bill & the Blog: come on in, the water is lovely

March 30, 2007

Two of the four lists serves in which I am, for the moment, participating have picked up anti-blog themes over the last few weeks. The criticism appear to fall into three types:

  1. The argument of control or license, this surfaced on the AOK forum and was supported by two current and one former Knowledge Management staffer. The basic argument was that in return for access to technology and equipment employees should accept some degree of restriction or control on their use of blogs. Now I see little or no merit in this argument, and it exhibits little or no knowledge, theoretical or practical about the use of blogs. On the other hand it does reveal the deep seated fear of the corporate IT function (where KM is now located in the main) of any technology or practice which allows the free expression and exchange of ideas. One person made the following statement which for me speaks for itself (and badly):If you need a license to drive a car, I would find very reasonable for employees to need a license to blog or to open a collaborative space on behalf of their company. This view was strongly linked to the view that collaboration in companies requires corporate sponsorship. My response that anything with such sponsorship necessarily attracts sycophants, and that consequent activity was not proof of value, was not well received.
  2. The argument of relevance which is a variation of Hubert’s Error in which blogs are seen as publication tools for ego maniacs (I don’t think this is an unfair summary by the way). Hubert was again the main protagonist and if anything firmed up his position with the statement: Very clearly, I believe that the use of blogs and wiki’s are dead-end roads for communities. Not in any way useful. I frankly don’t understand this obsession that everything has to come down to these content-based tools that have little to do with full fledge collaboration, and in fact may be anathema to it. This thing about wiki’s and blogs has become an obsession, an ideological bent that has nothing to do with the reality of collaborative work in organizations. It’s nothing but a passing fashion that may have already peaked. Again I think this is flawed and based on a misunderstanding (probably through lack of experience, or possibly the wrong experience) of social computing. I have already answered Hubert with above reference blog so will not repeat the material here (it is worth reading for the various comments, trackbacks and Hubert’s response).
  3. The argument of validity of content which came from an unexpected source namely Bill Hall. Now I have know Bill for years, agree with much of what he says, disagree with his use of Popper and aspects of his approach to complexity. I have recently discovered we do not share the same sense of humour (I caused offense and apologise) but above all I have a lot of respect for his intellectual ability and integrity. So when he launches at attack I take it more seriously. I will therefore spend the rest of this blog quoting his opinion in full and attempting to deal with the points he raises.

So let us start with Bill’s posting:

I agree that many people may not have enough to say to sustain a blog.
Others simply want to say too much and consequently use the technology to rampantly produce dirt and pollution. In neither case am I interested to see what these people say.
Blogging technology is marvelously capable and versatile – and I argue much too facile. As the Australia article illustrates, even fluff brains with nothing to say can blog. I have avoided the blog space because I think the facility devalues the content.
A few people have the internal discipline to establish and follow a clear focus to provide only high quality content, but one has to swim through such a large volume of dirt and pollution in the medium to find the gems, and even then one may wonder just how authoritative (beyond simple personal opinion) the content is. More people, who occasionally provide quality content, intersperse their good and useful stuff with random junk because it is so easy to stuff content in, and because they feel obliged to update their sites every so often.
If I am going to bet my business or life on content, I want to know that it is based on more than the blogger’s passing personal opinion.
Consequently, as a reader, I largely ignore the medium – even blogs by people I know and respect in person or through this forum. Even in some of these presumably high quality blogs there is a lot of chaff and poor sourcing of ideas.
Personally, because I have a lot I want to say and little time for writing, I don’t want to publish junk. Consequently, I have chosen to focus my publishing efforts on the somewhat more disciplined environment of list forums and peer reviewed journals and conferences. I’m happy to expose my pre-submission drafts to the web – but only after I have gone through the discipline of writing to be formally reviewed.
Peer reviewed journals are a difficult medium to crack, but the difficulties work marvelously to force focus, clarity and reliability of content.

Regards,

William P. (Bill) Hall, PhD
Documentation & KM Systems Analyst
Group Head Office/Engineering
Tenix Pty Ltd
Nelson House Annex, Nelson Place
Williamstown, Vic. 3016 Australia
Phone: +61 3 9244 4820 (M-W)
Email: bill.hall@tenix.com
URL: http://www.tenix.com

Evolutionary Biology of Species and Organizations
http://www.orgs-evolution-knowledge.net/

Senior Fellow
Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Melbourne
Uni Office: ICT 3.67, 111 Barry St., Carlton
Phone: +61 3 8344 1488 (Thurs-Fri)
Email: bhall-u@dis.unimelb.edu.au
URL: http://www.acsis.unimelb.edu.au/

Visiting Faculty Associate
University of Technology Sydney

To be honest after reading this I was tempted to call it the argument from ignorance, or the elitist position but while I think I could justify such a position it may be a little extreme. However I think Bill makes a series of propositions that are either false or take an elitist standpoint that cannot be supported. He also argues from ignorance as he has not participated in any meaningful way in the blogosphere. There is nothing necessarily wrong with elitism by the way, in the right context it can be a badge of honour, but I will go through Bill’s arguments in a minute. First I want to look at this question of experience.

It is noticeable that all those who criticised social computing were not participants in the space. Their experience was vicarious at best. Now arguing that because someone does not have experience, they are not entitled to an opinion is not valid. I do not have to take drugs in order to have an opinion on the validity of recreational drug use. However I do pay more attention to someone who has that experience or works with people in the field. Now in the case of blogs there is no physical or moral harm likely and I think people who are involved in knowledge management have some obligation to participate for a period if they plan to make such absolute judgments. If you do participate then it must not be new wine in old wineskins. One participant argued that she had tried to use a blog to convey government policy, top down, requiring civil servants to contribute. That is a travesty of what social computing is about. Now, I speak of that of which I know, I was critical/neutral six months ago but active participation in the blogosphere and several wikipedia articles have moved me not only to supporter, but to a very different understanding of how the sphere operates. It is like riding a bike, you have to get on it .….

Now to Bill’s arguments. I want to deal with these proposition by proposition, and you have the original to check I am being fair. In large part I intend to show that Bill’s preferred mediums, journals and list serves are as, if not more subject to the faults he listed. Bill also references a Gartner report which indicated some down turn in take up of blogs, but which was entirely illustrated by the “what I did on my summer holiday” type..

”fluff brains write blogs
Yes of course they do. They also write books and whole magazines are devoted to their interests. They also write letters, but I do not intend to stop using the post in consequence. In my experience if you enter the blogosphere by linking to blogs that interesting you and taking recommendations from people who you know, then you find very little fluff. In practice it is a lot easier to avoid fluff as you have more validation through your blog network. With other material you are more dependent on limited review processes and brand.

Rampant production of dirt and pollution
This reminds me a bit of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford. Yes there is a lot of rubbish out there, but its not a push model its a pull one. You link and connect as you build trust. You choose what is fed to you in your RSS feed, it is not pumped into your living room so you have to view it.

Few people provide high quality content
This is real nonsense. If I look at my Cognitive Sciences feeds alone then I get huge value, with consistent high quality content. Because of blogs such as Cognitive Daily I can have access to a vast body of material that would otherwise escape me. I could give other examples in several fields. My point is simple, there are a whole group of bloggers who synthesis refereed material and make it available through their blogs. This exceeds the capacity of any digest or review process.

Interspersing good stuff with random junk
I actually enjoy this. It gives you more knowledge of the person. Using the blogosphere is rather like part of a really interesting common room. You get to know the people as well as their content. I insert such information from time to time, in between more serious reflections and most people give good feedback, although I did offend the odd English Rugby supporter recently. Knowing something about the people is useful, it adds humanity to the content. If Universities had only libraries and no social spaces they would be impoverished as a result; the same is true of the blogosphere.

List forums are a more disciplined environment than blogs
Well Bill and I have several list forums in common, and I also have experience of using blogs. I can honestly say that I found this statement incredible. After six months in blogs I am thinking of giving up on list serves. There is a terrible amount of fluff and nonsense and, unlike my RSS feed, I cannot turn it off. I have yet to see any discipline or quality control.

Peer reviewed journals v blogs
I am happy to accept that more goes into the review process, but I am not sure that this justified Bill’s case. At one level I can simply say why is this an either/or? I also participate in both. But there is another issue here; the editors and reviewers of even the most serious academic journals also have opinions, and frequently make decisions on ideological lines. I know a fair number of serious thinkers, with dissenting opinions who find it difficult to get published, not because of the quality of their work, but because of its originality. There is a Bellarmini to match each Galileo. The medium is a good one but it is not immune from criticism. In a journal you are reviewed by under ten people selected by the editor, in the blogosphere (or wikipedia) you are reviewed by far more, and in the main only by people who are interested in your field. There is a lot of unjustified elitism in this field and I think Bill teeters on the edge of that sin in his posting.

Conferences v blogs
I assume that Bill is referencing academic ones. I go to a fair amount of these and I find them useful, not for content (5 people presenting 7K papers in an hour slot hardly constitutes learning) but for the contacts and the ability to do some screening on which papers to read. Its also interesting that a lot of academics do not even turn up to present their paper. Once it is accepted they have a tick in the box and instead spend the day looking round Florence or on the beach in Penang (real cases here). Nothing special here, and while I will give equal status to journals, here the blogosphere is superior.

Swimming through dirt and pollution
I would buy that argument for a google search these days, it is increasingly difficult to find what you want. However the accusation could only be made against the blogosphere from someone who has no experience, or who has entered the space without any guidance. If you decide to dive into a sewer then you will encounter filth. On the other hand if you go with those who swim on a regular basis they will take you to the pristine beaches and flagged (safe) areas of the more popular ones.

The only reason to encounter filth is stupidity or naiveté. I will give Bill the benefit of the doubt with the assumption that for him it is the latter. I accordingly extend him the invitation, offered by many a swimmer to the reluctant debutant: come on in, the water is lovely.

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