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Editorial: Online, Accountability Works Both Ways

As someone who was a blogger before entering the world of newspapers, I am perhaps in a unique position to see the irony in many of the popular criticisms of blogging, as well as social media services such as Twitter, that emerge from the world of print. While critics of new media often bemoan the paltry research and lack of accountability to be found in the world of blogging, criticisms of blogging are often based on nebulous fears for the future of publishing as opposed to actual facts, and the critics themselves don’t think they should be held accountable for the fact that they don’t know the culture of the blogosphere very well, or even know anyone who does. Many criticize Twitter for encouraging the oversimplification of concepts through the enforced character limit, however ignoring the many possible uses of Twitter that do not have such limitations- to instead judge the phenomenon only by its weakest applications- is itself a gross oversimplification. In short, while there are undoubtedly legitimate concerns about the veracity of information to be found online in general, many media traditionalists have been presenting these concerns either dishonestly, or through a veil of genuine fear and culture shock.

For example, the relative lack of accountability in blogging is often explained as though these gaps in media credibility have never existed, and we’ve never had to acclimate to navigating them before. However, just as I wouldn’t confuse a tawdry supermarket tabloid with my local newspaper, I do not take seriously the ranting of a blogger whose credentials I cannot establish, or do not respect. Furthermore, critics sometimes purposefully misconstrue the role of blogs in order to discredit them. Many times, I’ve seen people complain about the lack of “journalism” in pop culture blogs where the mission statement- visible on the front page of the blogs- is to entertain, not educate. Meanwhile, blogs by dedicated professionals that do aspire to journalistic excellence are all too often pushed aside on the basis that ‘other’ blogs aren’t credible, as though everything published through a similar method must somehow be the same; we all know that isn’t true.

When it comes to social media, I don’t use Twitter to receive over-simplified news summaries, or to publish what I just had for breakfast. I primarily use it to announce when I’ve published something new, be it a review or an article or a video. These announcements are an efficient promotional tool for the actual content, not a replacement for it. Similarly, I become aware of other people’s work by judiciously following only people who I trust to link quality material; in this manner, I create a personalized news feed that saves me the time it would otherwise take to check dozens of sites every day. If someone posts poor-quality links, ignorant opinions, or personal details about their life that are of no interest to me, I don’t follow them. Furthermore, while I myself don’t see Twitter itself as a venue for journalism or education, a select few do it well; Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, is an avid tweeter who often shares interesting tidbits about the planets and the stars. The fact that Tyson also publishes in-depth books about astronomy does not take away from the utility of these daily postings, or vice-versa.

Plenty of people misuse blogs and social media services- or, at the very least, don’t use them in a way that plays to their strengths instead of their weaknesses. But those strengths are there, and just as we are right to be skeptical of whatever we may find on various corners of the Internet, we need to be skeptical of those critics who highlight the weaknesses of new media without explaining- or perhaps, even understanding- its potential value.