Aggregators, Blogs and Credibility: The “ABC” for Citizen Journalism

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In the recent IPS post-elections forum, the impact of the internet on the 2006 general elections has been discussed. One metric which the study did not manage to address is the issue of the bloggers’ credibility on this new form of citizen journalism. In this article, I review the emergence of group blogs (aggregators & congregators) and explain how they can be important in closing the credibility gap in blogs, and indicate directions for future research in this area.

There is a supposed conflict between the real and virtual world. This conflict is often characterized by the pundits from the traditional media as the challenge posed by the beast of “the new media”. That beast is the World Wide Web (or internet), so named by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and its latest iteration, Web 2.0 (exemplified by the phenomena of YouTube, Podcasting, Google, Blogging, Flickr, etc.). Much of Web 2.0 centers on the new paradigm of content management and transfer. For the purpose of making this discussion simple, I will focus on blogging.

There are two dimensions that made blogging very different from previous forms of content publication. The first concerns freedom of speech and the second concerns the credibility of the bloggers. They are intrinsically related. The internet has created a new landscape that promotes the democratization of thought and the revolution wrought by Web 2.0 can be seen in terms of the proliferation of content, which has in turn empowered users to create a new kind of identity. This new sort of identity partakes of qualities that, until not too long ago, only the few and powerful–particularly those in control of mass media (where the large corporations have undue influence)–can have.

Is Credibility that important in Citizen Journalism?

To avoid unnecessary complications, I will draw upon the definition of citizen journalism offered in Tan Tarn How, “Citizen Journalism and the 2006 Elections” [1]. According to Tan:

Citizen journalism is defined as the

  • Independent online publications with amateurs doing original reporting.
  • Citizens contributing photos, video and news to the mainstream news outlets.
  • When blogger adds personal commentary that relies on original research.”

For present purposes, the definition needs to be expanded to include commentaries and opinions of established professionals or experts in various fields. For example, if an economist, Prof X, writes a short commentary in his blog (rather than a more traditional form of publication) on the price gouging of oil companies, this qualifies as a piece of citizen journalism under my expanded definition.

The establishment viewed the freedom of speech available in the internet as a threat. Rules and regulations are continuously reviewed and created even today [2]. To deal with the growing menace of “poison pens” in the internet, new laws are established–or old ones applied–lto cope with bloggers making “seditious” and defamatory comments. The establishment presents the internet as an unsafe place, and promotes the notion that the content by bloggers is not credible. The central reason they cite for notion that bloggers are credible is that these writers hide behind the mask of anonymity.

The anonymity issue is the crux of the credibility debate in citizen journalism. It is a double-edged sword. The real problem with the establishment is that they cannot accept anonymous comments that may damage their reputation in their own backyards. I don’t believe that the problem is common to politics but can also be found in the academic and the business world.

But the association of anonymity with the lack of credibility is a non-sequitur. If someone writes a trashy article, his credibility will be lowered as compared to someone who writes an articulate and well reasoned article–whether or not either writer is anonymous. Think about it this way: are you willing to trust someone who spouts vulgarities over every paragraph on his or her piece or someone who writes professionally or with social etiquette? The establishment forgets that there is a mechanism of self-correction involved in the very nature of the internet.

Aggregators and Congregation of Bloggers

In Singapore, a few blogs (SG Entrepreneurs, Singabloodypore, Tomorrow.SG and the new Singapore Angle) has already taken steps to aggregate individual blogs to form common interest groups. This is related to the notion of self-organizing of social groups in economics.

There are three reasons for the trend. The first is blogging fatigue. Most blogs typically start with an individual who wants to voice his or her opinion on various subjects. But as time goes by, the blogger may suffer from writers’ block. Congregation of bloggers into group blogs allow for less felt need to come up with something to say everyday–with enough writers in the group, there will be something by someone every day. Secondly, bloggers often find themselves writing on topics that intersect with those that interest other bloggers. This sometimes leads to the formation of groups with common interests [3]. For example, Singabloodypore is now a authored by a group of bloggers writing primarily political commentaries. On the other hand, SG Entrepreneurs has a more apolitical focus on business, venture capital and entrepreneurship education, while Tomorrow.SG is created with the purpose of showcasing the diversity of blogs in the Singapore Blogosphere. Finally, the last reason, I believe, is that the building of social networks goes hand in hand with an increase in the credibility of the individual bloggers. (I do not dispute that there might be individual bloggers who are already perceived as credible on their own.) On this issue, theories of social networks from the social sciences may perhaps help to illuminate the issue of bloggers’ credibility and to provide a framework within which the impact of citizen journalism can be studied. My sense is that what we have before us is analogous to the processes underlying the use of “impact factor” to assess the credibility of an academic’s publication.

One can formulate two models for group blogs.

  • The Aggregator Model: An aggregator blog is one which accumulates different blog entries and helps to divert the reader to the blog of his or her interest. In this way, the reader only needs to access one site to survey all the blog articles. A simple example is the Google News, which aggregates news from around the world, sorts them under different categories and also by the date, time and place where the article is published. In this model, there are two distinct types. The first example is Tomorrow.SG, where there is a group of human editors who decide what kind of articles get published. In general, there is a peer review system associated with that model. However, the editors may not be professional in that regard and could be biased towards a certain kind of content. In that type of blogs, one can do tracebacks, which can also become a problem if spamming enters into the situation. A second type would be exemplified by Google News, where the aggregation is done by non-human algorithm.

    The second example is the Digg model, where an individual submits a blog and the blog only gets published if there are enough votes above a certain threshold (say, a minimum of hundred votes). The Digg model resembles the publishing process in economics, where the economist needs to put a working paper in the web for his peers to review. In the process, he obtains feedback and criticisms and makes corrections to the paper till everyone agrees that it is in a publishable state. That process usually takes a long time (2-3 years) for the publication to be formally submitted.

  • The Congregation Model: A congregation blog is similar to the aggregator except that it brings together bloggers (rather than content directly) of similar interests. For example, Singabloodypore and SG Entrepreneurs follow this model, by bringing together individual bloggers to share their stories or crosspost their articles to capture a wider audience. In this model, credibility can go both ways: either, if a blogger X writes well compare to his peers, the overall credibility of the blog may increase, or if his fellow blogger Y writes radical and emotive articles which are contrary to the logical discourse of the blog, the credibility of the blog will be dragged down overall. It remains a challenge to study such blogs.

Looking at the above models, the congregation model appears promising in any projected study into the issue of blogger credibility. Here are a couple of suggestions or directions that one can look into.

  • Study the opinion of the audience towards the individual contributions towards the blog. Perhaps, one can establish a rating system by distinguishing between the layman and the expert and their views on the same blog.
  • Does the common interest blog serve the community? What is its impact upon the community in general? One can develop case studies to consider the development of social networks in the internet.
  • Develop a impact factor index for blogs, in the way scientific journals are rated in academic institutions. However, this might take away the fun factor of writing a blog.

My intuition is that there will be an increasing degree of consolidation among blogs, just as we see with the consolidation of content via Wikipedia, Google Video and Flickr.

Blogs as a credible source about the Real World

Can blogs be a credible source to knowledge and information about the real world? I believe that it’s possible and I have offered some suggestions above. Let me briefly make three points. The first is that the congregation of credible blog content can be turned into more traditional forms of publications that are scrutinized by established professionals and academics [4]. The second concerns education. As people are ever more inundated by an increasing volume of information, it becomes all the more important that our young are taught to carefully discern what they read. Finally, my hope is that the new media of blogging will help to raise awareness about issues and help to construct an acceptable social identity for those who want to engage in social and political debate.

Acknowledgements: The author thanks the following bloggers: Bjorn Lee, Brian Ling a.k.a Design Translator, Cobalt Paladin, Euan Semple, Heavenly-Sword, Hui Chieh, Justin Lee, Kway Teow Man, Legal Janitor, Alex Au a.k.a Yawning Bread and several unnamed bloggers for critical comments and interesting discussions that led to the writing of this article. He also thanks Tan Tarn How for an initial discussion and thoughts during the IPS Post Election Forum that led to the writing of this article. He also thanks the editor for suggestions and comments that improve the original article to its present form.

References:
[1] Tan Tarn How, “Citizen Journalism and the 2006 Elections”, Session IV, IPS Post-Election Forum, dated 2 June 2006.
[2] The AcidFlask incident, the PSC scholar making racist remarks and recent lawsuits using the Seditions Act are examples of cases where the blogosphere engages the real world.
[3] SG Entrepreneurs, Singabloodypore, Tomorrow.SG are examples of group blogs with very different focus.
[4] An example of a blog article translated to a proper article in the journal is by the author, entitled “Finding the Golden Path: Can Singapore be a Silicon Valley?”. The article is first written as a blog entry and through recommendation by experts in the area, sent for publication in Innovation Magazine, July 2006.

Originally published in Singapore Angle

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist