Origin myths

Joshua notes recent talk about the mass media and blogs and how they are related. I guess this is an area of interest to me: I’ve published on it and it made up a chapter of my dissertation, but I haven’t had much to say about it.

I would like to note that I linked to blog epidemic stuff three weeks before Wired did, and they failed to cite me :). The work there is fascinating, I think. It raises some interesting questions; vis:

Second-order cybernetics in a very pure form. If the authors actually create a system that will report iRanks, and those ranks become valued, how will this affect people’s blogging. (The valued part is interesting, since one has to accept a performance measure in order for it to shape behavior. That Lilia, for example, doesn’t use inlinks as a measure of her success [nor do I], means that garnering wide attention from linkers will not be a motivating factor.) But I would guess that a number of people would consider iRank — a measure of influence — something that would motivate changes in their blogging behavior. How then, will bloggers respond.

The natural response, I think would be to post more “original” material. What is original? That is a very good question, indeed. For the purposes of iRank, it seems that part of the originality (though there are others that seem to deal with structure rather than flow) is simply dissimilarity of text. In other words, by translating other people’s posts into another language, I could be original.

More generally, a working definition of creativity or originality is taking pieces that have not before been joined and putting them together in a unique configuration. Commentary, then, can be creative, original threads. I might, for example, comment on discussions about mass media and blogging, but add my own perspective and background. I’m thinking, for example, of recent volumes on the philosophy of the Matrix. Are these unoriginal simply because they reference an existing media piece. I can imagine reading a sociologist’s take on the news would be interesting and would not take away from hearing from an economist or a lawyer or a biologist.

What about when someone finds an obscure, yet-to-be-blogged movie/news story/software/band/club/political tidbit? Is that original. It may be original to the blog world. In other words, they have engaged in a kind of “contextual arbitrage” moving information between channels without re-arranging or comparing it in any way. That is, it is locally original, though it may not be globally original. The earlier example of translation is an example of this. I think it would be wrong to discount this as an important kind of originality.

Originality exists in analysis or exegesis. By focusing on facts, by tearing apart an argument, or by teasing out a single aspect, one is original but draws on outside sources.

Likewise, aggregation and synthesis, like what a good journalist, retailer, or chef does, remains original.

Finally, there is the sort of autobiographical originality that seems to draw on nothing more than the author’s own thoughts or experiences. This last category, I suspect, strikes many as the epitome of creativity and originality. Yet, I have a feeling that regardless of citation or the lack thereof, it is no more “original” than some of the other elements above.

Inferring citations is a tricky business. I applaud the Blog Epidemic project, but would be extremely wary of overextending the claim. There are certainly memes that might be tracked across the blogosphere, but discovering the starting point of such memes requires an arbitrary definitional cut-off. Though I suspect iRank would be a very popular way of finding and gauging blogs, I have a feeling I would still prefer my own interpretants and translators to those blogs that apparently started a large number of trends in the larger blog conversation.

In the end, the particular rubric for determining originality will me important. One that works entirely on textual and link dissimilarity will encourage people to post more “diary-like” personal revelations. In such an environment, conversation and annotation is likely to get stiffled. The spark of originality is nothing on its own; it needs an environment in which it can ignite thought, discussion, argument, and action.

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