Martin Pool's blog

Alexis de Tocqueville on blogs

(I had told myself that I would stop flogging the dead horse that is Samiszdat, but this is so delicious I really had to post.)

I was just reading Lawrence Lessig's great new book Free Culture. In fact, I wasn't reading it, I was listening to it, but that is another story.

Democracy means rule by the people, but rule means something more than mere elections. In our tradition, it also means control through reasoned discourse. This was the idea that captured the imagination of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French lawyer who wrote the most important account of early "Democracy in America." It wasn't popular elections that fascinated him - it was the jury, an institution that gave ordinary people the right to choose life or death for other citizens. And most fascinating for him was that the jury didn't just vote about the outcome they would impose. They deliberated. Members argued about the "right" result; they tried to persuade each other of the "right" result, and in criminal cases at least, they had to agree upon a unanimous result for the process to come to an end. [...]

Enter the blog. The blog's very architecture solves one part of this problem. People post when they want to post, and people read when they want to read. The most difficult time is synchronous time. Technologies that enable asynchronous communication, such as e-mail, increase the opportunity for communication. Blogs allow for public discourse without the public ever needing to gather in a single public place. [...]

I think the recent discussion by the organization operating under de Tocqueville's name provides another good example. In the past, if somebody published a bad book in which they made unfounded claims, it would take a while for responses to come out. The most an ordinary person could probably manage would be to get something printed in a newspaper, which only covers a small fraction of the world. Now we are able to collectively deliberate and criticize the book before it appears on paper and publishing to anyone who cares to hear.

Television and newspapers are commercial entities. They must work to keep attention. If they lose readers, they lose revenue. Like sharks, they must move on.

But bloggers don't have a similar constraint. They can obsess, they can focus, they can get serious. If a particular blogger writes a particularly interesting story, more and more people link to that story. And as the number of links to a particular story increases, it rises in the ranks of stories. People read what is popular; what is popular has been selected by a very democratic process of peer-generated rankings.

Speaking of unanimity, I ought to go through Samizdat again and check if there are any of their primary sources who have not disowned the book. I think the only one is John Lions, who sadly is unable to, but I should check.

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