The Social Epistemology of Blogging

Alvin Goldman, the doyen of analytic social epistemology, has a draft paper posted on his website entitled “The Social Epistemology of Blogging.” What’s gratifying to me is that via Richard Posner (whom Goldman cites), Hayek, who I have argued is the social epistemologist par excellence, makes an appearance. I have recently argued that if Hayek was centrally concerned with “communications systems” then he was centrally concerned with the communicative aspect to knowledge. And, if social epistemology has the formation, acquisition, mediation, transmission and dissemination of (for the most part third-party) knowledge in complex communities of knowers as its subject matter, then to say that its concern is essentially stigmergic, verges on being tautologous. Stigmergy is the phenomenon of indirect communication mediated by modifications of the environment. Sociality is stigmergic on the grounds that no one mind has global knowledge – there is no rationalistic master plan or blue-print; much of the “calculation” is done through social artifacts (the market for one); and last but by no means least, it is stigmergic on the grounds of the iterated looping of behaviors within and through the environment. Readers should also check out Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge and a popular discussion  in The Wisdom of Crowds: both writers have picked up on Hayek. The excepts that follow are from Goldman, the quotes from Posner. 

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There are many ways in which the Web, or the Internet, is used in communicating information. The Internet is a platform with multiple applications. We are not concerned here with all applications of the Internet, only with one of the more recent and influential ones, viz., blogging and its associated realm, the blogosphere. Richard Posner (2005) argues that blogging is gradually displacing conventional journalism as a source of news and the dissection of news. Moreover, Posner argues – though with some qualifications and murkiness in his message — that this is not inimical to the public’s epistemic good. The argument seems to be that blogging, as a medium of political communication and deliberation, is no worse from the standpoint of public knowledge than conventional journalism. Posner highlights this point in the matter of error detection.

[T]he blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission.

The charge by mainstream journalists that blogging lacks checks and balances is obtuse. The blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media, only they are different. The model is Friedrich Hayek’s classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants. In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise – not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet almost no costs. It’s as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising. (Posner 2005, pp. 10-11)

This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public …

In these passages Posner seems to be saying that the blogosphere is more accurate, and hence a better instrument of knowledge, than the conventional media. But elsewhere he introduces an important qualification, viz., that the bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media.

They [the bloggers] copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, without picking up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripes of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend. (Posner 2005, p. 11)

As I would express it, the point to be learned is that we cannot compare the blogosphere and the conventional news outlets as two wholly independent and alternative communication media, because the blogosphere (in its current incarnation, at least) isn’t independent of the conventional media; it piggy-backs, or free-rides, on them. Whatever credit is due to the blogs for error correction shouldn’t go to them alone, because their error-checking ability is derivative from the conventional media.

It would also be a mistake to confuse the aforementioned theme of Posner’s article with the whole of his message, or perhaps even its principal point. Posner’s principal point is to explain the decline of the conventional media in economic terms. Increase in competition in the news market, he says, has brought about more polarization, more sensationalism, more healthy skepticism, and, in sum, “a better matching of supply to demand” (2005, p. 11). Most people do not demand, i.e., do not seek, better quality news coverage; they seek entertainment, confirmation (of their prior views), reinforcement, and emotional satisfaction. Providers of news have been forced to give consumers what they want. This is a familiar theme from economics-minded theorists.

What this implies, however, is that Posner’s analysis is only tangentially addressed to our distinctively epistemic question: Is the public better off or worse off, in terms of knowledge or true belief (on political subjects), with the current news market? Granted that the public at large isn’t interested – at least not exclusively interested – in accurate political knowledge, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take an interest in this subject. It is perfectly appropriate for theorists of democracy and public ethics to take an interest in this question, especially in light of the connection presented in section 1 between successful democracy and the citizenry’s political knowledge. So let us set aside Posner’s larger message and focus on the two mass communication mechanisms he identifies to see how they fare in social epistemological terms, i.e., in terms of their respective contributions to true vs. false beliefs.