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02/20/2005

Backbiting

Hooke_flea_1

An ancient bit of doggerel goes:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

To which Jonathan Swift added:

Thus every poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind.

Nowhere (as Captain Ed appreciates) are the backbiting anxieties of influence more evident than in the realm of political debate, where every catch phrase is coveted (information superhighway, axis of evil) and every meme (flip-flopping, "Bush knew") endlessly dissected, repackaged and recycled.

For all their liberating power, blog swarms may actually accelerate this process, making authorship more diffuse and anonymous—and transforming the would-be blogopolis into something more akin to a massive focus group. In a digital universe where ideas only want to be free, what do we owe to the individuals who create them?

Should we simply stand on the shoulders of giants—trusting them to remain both strong and silent? Or do we need to enforce a blogger's code of ethics that puts a premium on transparency and accountability in all we write?

I'll leave such weighty questions to more muscular intellects. But there's also a very tangible economy of ideas—of the sort that can be measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics—in which some get paid for the intellectual capital they create and some don't. I wrote below that blogs are fast becoming the Kazaa of the paid punditocracy—where sampling is welcomed and payment of artist royalties conveniently ignored. All the more so if your garage band hasn't yet been signed to a major label.

My Peggy Noonan post, in fact, seems to have struck a chord among my fellow bloggers.

Rand Holman writes:

Having found that a number of my stories in the past year have been pilfered as well, I can relate, Rodger.

Oh, I can relate.

Another blogger shared this with me in an email last week:

Actually you're at the stage where you'll see your stuff "borrowed" frequently. I was there about six months ago.  I was still a minor enough figure that smart reporters could steal my insights and pawn them off as their own. I posted a piece on my blog during the Presidential campaign last fall. A Fox News analyst borrowed it the next day—and used it for the next six weeks.

Journalists as a class may not be particularly smart, but some are quite clever. And most aren't creative eenough to spew 700 words two or three times a week which to a guy who easily pumps out about 1500 words a day seems pretty amazing.

The notion of a punditry pecking order is interesting, particularly in light of this story by Amit Asaravala, which appeared last March in Wired News:

The most-read webloggers aren't necessarily the ones with the most original ideas, say researchers at Hewlett-Packard Labs.

Using newly developed techniques for graphing the flow of information between blogs, the researchers have discovered that authors of popular blog sites regularly borrow topics from lesser-known bloggers—and they often do so without attribution.

Perhaps columnists reason that, since bloggers frequently swipe from one another, it's only fair game to steal from the blogosphere. After all, isn't it just the Wild West out there?

"It has come to be practically a sort of rule in literature," Emerson wrote, "that a man, having once shown himself capable of original writing, is entitled thenceforth to steal from the writings of others at discretion."

Call it Stephen Ambrose Syndrome—or perhaps more accurately, Rick Bragg Syndrome. Whatever the label, many of our MSM peers plainly think they've earned their verbal droit du seigneur—leaving  the less privileged members of the Fourth Estate feeling royally screwed.

Posted by Rodger on February 20, 2005 at 11:27 AM | Permalink

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