As I was reading through some of text2cloud, a writing project created and run by Richard Miller, I found one “blog post” (do I call it that? maybe article?) entitled “Cut and Paste Reportage: The Rise of ‘Whatever Journalism‘” that stuck with me.
In it, Miller tells a narrative about a school incident that became a Letter to the Editor at a student-run newspaper, which then became a Jezebel article, which then became a HuffPost article, which then became an MSNBC article, which then became a Daily News blurb.
Beyond its trajectory (which definitely provides another example of media that does not necessarily follow Tom Standage’s vertical/horizontal or human/impersonal central source opposition), the story offers an interesting glimpse at contemporary plagiarism practices across digital media. Miller provides an in-depth analysis of each new source’s patch-writing and/or copying practices as the story moves along from site to site. He calls these practices and their products “Whatever Journalism”: news for an audience who is “incurious,” and unwilling to devote time to discover the truth of a situation beyond its initial gloss.
(Actually, it would be fascinating to see how much I just copied from the original blog post, unintentionally and/or due to my lack of sleep.)
After reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book Planned Obsolescence, this blog post leapt out at me as a realized example of the niggling doubts I had in the back of my head during her chapter on peer review.
Her ideals of the peer review process, one in which the purpose is, “first, fostering discussion and feedback among scholars with the aim of strengthening the work that they produce; and second, providing a mechanism through which that work may be filtered for quality” (26 on Kindle), is wonderful. Yet, as an ideal, it doesn’t hold up as well when faced with actual, erring human beings.
Her discussion of the “karma”-based Slashdot, “highly male-dominated” as it was, instantly made me think of Reddit (35 on Kindle). In a forum system where you must be up-voted in order to be heard, the community-minded rules ask members to only down-vote a post/comment if they don’t think it contributes to the conversation, not just if they disagree with it. In practice, however, people are constantly down-voted for differences in opinion or even just for attempting to ask a question on an AMA post when other people want to be answered as well. The “karma” or attention greed, coupled with a lack of community-mindedness, can make any subreddit a really annoying place to be.
I was struck by the text2cloud blog post today because it provides another example of a peer review system that has failed somewhat. “Whatever Journalism” is the end result of less-than-ideal human conditions of laziness or, as Miller argues, lack of curiosity. If each member of these news source communities were the kind of tireless, community-minded people Fitzpatrick imagines, these kind of news stories would be stamped out or at least heavily criticized instead of taken as fact.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for the ideal. I do think it’s achievable depending on the size and determination of the community. But we can’t forget that the nature of “peer” review is its dependence on other human beings, wonderful, “incurious,” and imperfect as they are.
(Then again, perhaps I’m making a logical mistake here by thinking about a subreddit or online news audience as an example of a peer review community. What do you think?)