A Style of Looking

“I guarantee there’s non-crap out there.”

Lanky and famously kinetic, Jeff Jarvis is holding court at the BusinessWeek offices in midtown Manhattan, conducting a teaching session entitled, “The Art and Science of Blogging.” The room is filled with reporters, editors, and the likes of me; 50-some-odd “institutional” bloggers in all. I’m in the middle of the crowd, nodding my head in agreement as vigorously as I can without making the folks around me suspect I’ve got a medical condition.

If there really is such a thing as a genuine tension between Old Media and New (for those of us manning the news desks of the former) it’s centered squarely around the meme his quip was addressing. The response to an oft-uttered, yet specious ad hominem about blogs that goes something like, “But there’s so much crap online.”

Oh, really? There may be truth in that, but compared to what? Let’s take a look…

As I type this, the most recent issues of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Columbia Journalism Review, Good, Mother Jones, and (of course) BusinessWeek, are sitting on my couch. Yes, I will read all of them. It’s a serious commitment of time and energy. Will I read each and every article? Absolutely not. Because, while there’s plenty of gold in them thar pages, there’s also plenty of noise.

And that’s different from my interaction with online sources how, exactly?

Only by virtue of the fact that online technology enables greater volume and velocity. It merely extends existing conditions in media, accelerates them. (And as with many great technological leaps forward, the scaling-up happened so suddenly that it blocked the obviousness of these parallels for many of the participants.) These factors don’t ipso facto speak to quality. Don’t confuse volume with ratios. (And while we’re at it, don’t confuse a technology—blog software—with a writing style. But we’ll table that discussion for now.)

It’s a variation on a great zinger someone shot my way over a cup of coffee once: “Crap is media agnostic.” (Rearranged for those with delicate sensibilities, it could run, “Every medium has equal potential to inform poorly.”) Turn on the TV or walk into the local bookstore and you’ll find much the same as you do online (as Jarvis went on to point out). Plenty of twaddle to go ‘round. Plenty of value too, if you know what you’re digging for.

And therein lies the point. In order to be a savvy consumer of those magazines sitting on my couch, or any other medium, I need to develop a style of looking. Otherwise I’m destined to drown on the business end of the metaphorical fire hose—whether its dead trees or ephemeral electrons doing me in.

People already know this. Ask most savvy consumers and they’ll tell you they never expected everything being shoveled their way would be fit for consumption. They understand the need to be informed consumers—finicky eaters—in order to pan the gold dust out of the stream. (Mixed metaphor alert.)

So why do people forget this when they start talking about online? Why are sweeping dismissals still so common?

My own pet theory is that the filtering mechanisms people have built up for other mediums are so well established that they’ve become transparent. Nearly automatic and unconscious, some don’t even know they’re doing it. Then this new package arrives (same contents, mind you) and suddenly they’re seeing the forest for the trees again. Taking in the totality of what it contains, they’re shocked.

Seeing the same phenomenon in a new form forces people to witness it with fresh eyes. It’s a lot like coming home after a long vacation and finding your home a little unfamiliar. (“Wow, we really should throw a fresh coat of paint on these walls…”)

But don’t confuse the content with the conveyance. It’s the same old story, just in a different box. There’s piffle, there’s pay dirt, and then there’s the part you choose to pay attention to.