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Why self-correction in blogging is a vice, not a virtue

It’s hard to understand why after ten years of blogging, people are still arguing that the difference between journalism and blogging is that journalists take time to get it right. But that’s apparently what Robert Scoble was faced with at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference.

Robert goes into some detail of his experience on his post (more of which momentarily), but to anyone who’s been around media and news it’s pretty obvious that this is a canard. Journalists don’t always take time to get it right: in fact, what some of them do is no more than take time to check they won’t get sued for it, which is a very different thing. In the hunt for a good story, one which sells papers, truth is sometimes a secondary consideration.

Robert, though, raises some points which are also canardical (if that’s a word), particularly about the ability for blogging to “self-correct”. This idea of fast self-correction is an important one, and not just for blogging. The idea is simple: it’s fine to go back to a story and amend it later, because the correction gets around the web as quickly as the original story. It’s agile project management for knowledge: the first draft can be wrong, as long as you get it right at some point in the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this vision of constant redrafting of stories is very appealing to many journalists, too. It’s even more appealing to editors, under pressure to get stories out fast and revise them later. The idea of working on a story for days, weeks, and even months is anathema to many modern journalists.

But the problem is that “a story” has a life far, far beyond the original post. For a popular blogger like Scoble, the original words are likely to be picked up and reposted hundreds of times.

Watching the development and correction of stories, there’s something interesting that I’ve always observed. When someone posts something controversial (and wrong) few of the sites which post about that original post also post a correction.

And thus begins a classic network effect. Suppose Robert writes something erroneous, which 1,000 blogs pick up on and post about without correcting. If each of those has 100 readers, that’s 100,000 people who believe the original story – and unless Scoble’s readership is so huge that it encompasses all that 100,000 AND they correct their own posts, that’s a lot of misinformation out there on the web.

This situation is really compounded if the original post comes from someone without a vast readership, but which gets picked up by a well-read blogger. In this case, if the well-read blogger doesn’t pick up on the correct, it’s likely that the word will never have a chance of getting out – and the original, false information will be far more widely spread.

Of course, this is not a blogging versus journalism problem: it’s simply something that will always be true of fast publishing systems which are democratised, in the way the web is now. It doesn’t matter what the original source is: if it’s widely read and commented on, a later corrected version isn’t carried in the same way. By the time you correct, the attention of people has moved on.

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