“Can” Doesn’t Mean “Should”

by Krishna on February 19, 2009

During his efforts to cement his pariah status in conservative circles during the last election, Andrew Sullivan took a break to write a thoughtful article on blogging (emphasis mine):

This form of instant and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, allows for no retroactive editing (apart from fixing minor typos or small glitches) and removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in. […]

Anyone who has blogged his thoughts for an extended time will recognize this world. We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge. This is partly true for all journalism, which is, as its etymology suggests, daily writing, always subject to subsequent revision. And a good columnist will adjust position and judgment and even political loyalty over time, depending on events. But a blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. And with that level of timeliness, the provisionality of every word is even more pressing—and the risk of error or the thrill of prescience that much greater.

If there is a risk of error with blogging, imagine the risk of micro-blogging, perhaps a hundred times in magnitude. Those innocuous-looking 140-character fields, while useful in many contexts, provide you enough and some more rope to hang yourself with if you succumb to broadcasting every single expression of your emotions, especially those made while in anger or inebriated.

The problem with leaving traces of your in-the-moment feelings on the Internet is that they can be (and frequently are) taken out of context. The author is able to follow the development of a coherent argument from the initial reaction to the final opinion of an event, simply because they are the author and know what they did. But readers frequently land on one of those expressions, especially if they come from a search engine, and see only a part of the story.

The proliferation of blogs and the success of Twitter has increased information overload. This means that traditional methods of having your information consumed by readers (such as using a blog reader) will gradually decrease in significance to people hitting websites randomly or through search engines. Everyone cannot be Robert Scoble and read thousands of posts daily.

So there is a limit to how many blogs (that pump several posts a day) you can read. So for many sites, you will have to control the information you pull through information filters, or you simply visit them on a daily/weekly basis and pick and choose what you read. Just like you would read a newspaper or magazine, you would not read every single page, but choose those articles that capture your attention.

Therefore, although new writing mediums allow you to write more frequently, it doesn’t mean you should go down that route. To avoid readers misunderstand what you say, perhaps this is what you should do:

  1. Provide the proper context for any opinion.
  2. If your opinion has evolved, then provide links back to previous opinions.
  3. Delete opinions that you no longer hold to, or update those posts to reflect your current feelings about the topic.

Unfortunately, this is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to do if you are a prolific author. There is no way you can remember all the posts that you wrote about a specific topic. Blogging software may help you categorize and tag your posts, but it is too ineffective to be useful with a high volume of posts. One workaround is to update a single post about the same topic, but that has several problems of its own, such as loss of readability and lack of clarity about the evolution of thoughts. Some authors have also tried appending UPDATE sections to posts, which perhaps is the best solution under the circumstances.

Of course, the really corrected solution may be to avoid knee-jerk reactions, understand the situation better, do some research, gather facts and then provide a well thought-out opinion. That may be under-utilizing the power of the platform, but it is better in the long run to maintain credibility and consistency.

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