Free Speech Issues That Aren't: Free Speech and the Blogospheric Badge of Courage

The usual violence in the blogosphereBeing occupied and preoccupied with my backward-running microseries last week, I wasn't able to throw my two cents into the bloodied ring of the Blogger Registry Versus Free Speech brawl, nor the similarly gory Suppressed Free Speech of Don Imus fiasco. But lest you feel the sudden urge to yawn, I assure you I have no intention of weighing in on one side or the other. This is because neither really seems to have much to do with free speech. They're more configuration issues than free-speech issues.

Apparently, someone woke up one day and noticed a new configuration of the old Web page—or site, for a collection of pages—that had become extremely popular at some point during the night. The new arrangement was known as a blog, and although it was constructed of the familiar HTML material, the bits and pieces had been configured to act as a diary of sorts. It seemed specifically designed for frequent entries, perhaps on a daily basis, or weekly, or monthly, or whatever time and inclination might dictate. Like the familiar Web site, this new configuration also seemed to be intended to inhabit the Internet, but unlike the traditional site, the blog seemed to have interaction on its mind. In addition to writing space for the primary author, there was a place for comments.

Those who had been using the Net as an open discussion forum for years—via Usenet, for example—immediately recognized the newcomer as simply an updated implementation of some not-so-new concepts. Bulletin board meets Internet and begets Usenet; Usenet meets Web and begets interactive Web site. And the interactive Web site morphs—through a few minor tweaks—into a new, easy to use configuration suitable for bringing the infamous trolls and flame wars of Usenet onto the computer screens of the general population, no ├╝bergeek credentials required.

After a while, this new configuration also attracted the attention of mainstream media concerns, who noticed that millions of ordinary citizens were suddenly in possession of what amounted to personal printing presses with global distribution channels built in. This was vexing, because the citizens also seemed to like this newfound freedom of expression, and were even beginning to use it for things like news distribution. And so those who make decisions concerning mainstream media concerns issued fiats—which their underlings misunderstood—designed to address and correct the problem. Although the edicts were widely interpreted as a call for the immediate adoption of the blog model by mainstream media concerns in general, the actual intent was more along the lines of let's see what we can do to bring traditional media into sync with the present, instead of using up all that paper and ink and stuff. But by the time those who had issued the fiats returned from their vacations, it was too late.

Blogs had already been pressed into service in virtually every corner of the mainstream media, and were already being overrun by hordes of interlopers spouting vulgar ideas in even more vulgar language. It was like Usenet all over again, only worse, because mainstream media concerns had never deliberately participated in that kind of free-for-all. And wisely so, because it would have been madness. And yet, because of a simple misunderstanding, nearly everyone involved in the business—from management to interns—had been put in the decidedly awkward position of defending an indefensible idea. In a classic example of misapplication, the particular configuration known as a blog was expected to take the place of traditional one-way communication platforms such as newspapers, and when the heretofore civilized letters-to-the-editor section sank into chaos, some said it was time for accountability.

Some thought that the millions of ordinary citizens in possession of what amounted to personal printing presses with global distribution channels ought to be registered or otherwise accounted for, because that way they wouldn't be so likely to cause trouble. Without the cloak of anonymity, they'd think twice before leaving unacceptable comments on those mainstream-media blogs. In fact, they might stop trying to pass themselves off as journalists altogether; they might stay in their abhorrent blogosphere where they couldn't hurt anyone. When they heard this, the inhabitants of the blogosphere were upset. Their free-speech rights were being called into question; freedom of the press—or e-press in this case—was at stake, and anyone who said otherwise was itching for a fight. And so the fighting began.

This brings up a few questions.

1) Who decided to reconfigure traditional news sources using the interactive blog model in the first place? Newspapers—or magazines, or whatever—don't work in the Usenet configuration for obvious reasons, and the blog is just an updated version of that configuration. Disabling the comments feature inherent in the typical blog model would solve some problems, but then it wouldn't really be a blog anymore. Would this be a bad thing?

2) The existence of millions of personal printing presses with global distribution channels is historically unprecedented, but large-scale, mainstream media concerns are not. If those large media concerns decided to appropriate the personal printing press configuration—thereby inviting the traditional Usenet flame war—how would some kind of blogger-registry scheme undo that decision?

3) For better or worse, blogs are rapidly becoming the executive expression of the masses, and free expression deserves protection under the law. But when large-scale media adopts the same tool for use in the private mediasphere and then begins to suggest limitations on free expression in the public blogosphere, what problem is it, exactly, that would be solved?

4) If a journalist decides to post stories on a public Usenet forum and is subsequently overwhelmed by the volume and harshness of comments, is this symptomatic of the general decline of civilization, or is the civilization just more obvious now that we have personal printing presses through which to express our tortured lives?



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