Permalink Sunday, May 11, 2003
Why do you believe what you read?
Why are you reading this piece? Maybe you're reading this because you've read other things I've written in the past and you like my style. Maybe you came across this piece because of a link from another site. Or maybe you ended up here following a Google search. These are three typical reasons why anyone reads anything on the Internet and recently all three have been the subject of speculation, in particular in relation to how we interact with weblogs.

The very fact that this piece was written for my weblog might change how you find future pieces by me or other weblog writers. Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive at Google has said that the Internet search company will soon be offering a service for searching weblogs. The Register has picked up on his comments and speculated that weblogs might get their own tab in the familiar search engine's home page and that it's even possible that weblog data may be removed from Google's main index. The trouble, or so it is claimed, is that webloggers are inadvertently exploiting Google's PageRank algorithm to gain extra credibility with the result that weblog posts tend to occupy the top slots for many Google searches while 'proper' information is relegated to the lesser ranks.

First, a quick observation. Google is a lot smarter than some people give it credit for. Sure, a lot of weblogs turn up in Google searches but not always and certainly not always for current news topics. Google uses its clever algorithms and relevance matching tricks to identify search terms as being of topical relevance. For example, a Google search for 'SARS epidemic' not only produced some Google recommended news site links (no weblogs) but also mostly credible articles from established media such as The Guardian. Certainly no 'amateur' journalists posting to their weblogs. I'm not going to get into the weblog as journalism debate, that's been discussed many times elsewhere.

Now a more fundamental observation. Implicit in some of the objections to weblogs as information sources is that just because weblogging software is used then what is written using this software must in some way be less credible than what is written via other means. Dave Winer was spot on some time ago when he wrote "When that journalist writes something on the weblog, therefore, it must not be journalism. Suppose the journalist writes exactly the same words on her weblog that she writes in a column in the newspaper she writes for. In one place it's journalism and in the other it's not?" and "It also goes without saying that if an idiot writes a weblog, then you get idiocy in a weblog". That weblogs are any more or less subject to the maxim bullshit in, bullshit out than any other form of writing is false.

So what about credibility and where does it come from? Well here's where I'd like to make another observation. Recently there's been some discussion in my professional area (educational technology) surrounding writing in public in weblogs as opposed to writing in scholarly journals. An individual who has a high profile in the academic community (a track record of publishing in scholarly literature) has recently started a weblog. Now the weblog community in this area is particularly active, but often amongst individuals without a track record publishing in academic journals. That's a simplification and there are many exceptions but as a generalization for the purposes of this piece it's a valid statement. So in this example, where does the credibility come from? The scholar or the webloggers?

Both!

And here's why. As a member of academic staff I write for peer reviewed scholarly journals. An article I write may take 6 months to appear in print but when it does you can be assured that it's been read by at least two of my peers and therefore is credible. That's how the academic community moves forward. Blatant lies, untruths and falsehoods are weeded out at peer review stage (at least they are in most cases) so that what appears in print has at least passed the most basic test for veracity.

I also have a weblog and so I can decide to write a piece today and by this evening it'll be available to a global audience. In this case how do you assess the credibility of what I write? Instant publishing is transforming the availability of information. So much so that academic journals are adapting to this new medium by offering pre-prints and other forms of rapid publication including fully electronic journals that cut the time to publication dramatically. But these rapid forms of publication still use peer-review and so are still credible. So can the weblogging world gain the kind of credibility that renders its community information worthy of being on the first page of a Google search result? I think it can and the method by which this credibility is derived is through communities of practice. To quote Etienne Wenger, the originator of the communities of practice idea; "The basic idea [of communities of practice] is that human knowing is fundamentally a social act". To revisit the earlier example of educational technology weblogs, a community of practice has emerged centred on a core of bloggers that gives the ideas and discussions that emerge from this community a credibility that's every bit as valid as the peer reviewed community publishing articles in scholarly journals.

The big difference between writing for a journal and writing on a weblog is that crap written in academia tends not to get published (with very few exceptions) whereas crap written in a weblog can appear in the results of a Google search. But here's where Google's PageRank can help us. A weblog or weblogger that's consistently crap is less likely to partake in a community of practice than one that routinely generates active debate. The latter is also more likely to reach the top 10 in a Google search than the former exactly because of another of the phenomena of weblogging communities of practice, web links or the ubiquitous blogroll.

I think it's going to take a little while for these weblogging communities of practice to establish themselves in many areas but when and where they do I think we can look forward to more informed information and debate than has yet to grace much of what is written on the web. And when they do emerge I for one will be proud to call myself a blogger.

So back to Google. If Google creates a tab specifically for weblogs then that will propel weblogs from a relatively small-scale specialist activity into something of global relevance, in your face every time you do a Google search. Whether or not this is a good thing only time will tell. If on the other hand Google devise a way of removing weblog posts from its main index then I really do thing that the Internet will be a poorer place for it.

Note to readers: This piece has not been peer reviewed but has instead been blogged.