The Value of Informality
If there is one factor that keeps great voices from emerging in blogspace and holds back the development of new journalism, its the blurred distinction between informal and formal speech. And I think there is something we can do about it.
For example, Pierre Omidyar was beginning to emerge as a great voice in our conversations. But then he stopped. It could be that he was too busy. But his last post was on institutional versus personal speech. He explained the difficulty of being to blog informally as a person while being a visible member of an organization. The mainstream media would jump on his words without distinguishing them from something said in a speech or press release. Could spill over into financial or legal repercussions. The Pyra guys have had a sudden transition that almost made them go radio silent. Esther finds it difficult to relate her great experiences. Joi took flack from being an investor and blogger at the same time. With the large companies I have worked with, initially on internal blogging, they raise the prospect of real human executive communication. Only to be hindered by the need for editoral and legal workflow.
The same problem of formality is at the core of the transition to new journalism. The old means of editorial process, meant to distill journalism as fact, poorly serves the ends of analysis. Relegating it to the opinion section whose diversity suffers from bipolar disorder.
By contrast, weblogs offer sheer diverse opinion and analysis. Reader beware, enlightened and participatory. Fact is derived over time through conversations. Blogs don't need to be journalism. What makes this work is informality. The editorial filter is a post-production process. First cuts are made open, raw and exposed. Its faster, social and more honest.
Over the next year or so blogging will experience the quickening associated with large media portals bringing in later adopters. If the boundaries of formality and speech don't take hold, it will be accompanies with horror stories that would hold back the development of the medium. An executive who was slammed for something she said as an individual. More journalists loosing their jobs and further tension between old and new.
The conflict inherent in formal and informal modes of speech or press is a transition of norms. Blogging at first glance is silly, which is what makes it work. We shouldn't strive for better blogging, but strive to let the world know its imperfecture. Hammer this point. Let the world know these words are your own and they are just words. Establish the cultural norm of low expectations and indvidual expression aside from institutional affiliation.
But we live in a real world of jurisdictions and consequences. Recognizing this, what's needed is disclaimers. What I suggest is that there is an opportunity to standardize such a legal agreement. If this doesnt occur, every time an executive or journalist who wants to raise their voice as an individual will result in custom legal work done by internal and external counsel working outside their domain. A standard agreement would accellerate the process of approval for voices to be heared. It wouldn't capture all facets, just the basics, allowing the remaining conversation between individual and institution to be constructive. It would reduce the risks for both the individual and institution. Its core purpose would be would be a legal seperation between individual and institution as an established normative option. One that could be marketed to bring new and free voices into expression.
This may be a job for the EFF, Creative Commons or ACLU. But there are many legal bloggers who could flush out the prospects for such an initiative first. What do you think (if you are free to say it)?