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Milton Friedman, Technology Maven

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Milton Friedman lives on, despite his demise: he’s the rightful patron saint of blogging.

In the market of ideas, blogs fulfill the revolutionary promise of information technology. They enable anyone with enough digits and internet access to publish their thoughts, articles, essays, rants, and babble to a potentially unlimited readership. The unregulated nature of on-line publishing (China’s best efforts notwithstanding) has brought forth a dazzling quantity and array of thought-forums from which readers can chose. The nature of the beast, of course, is that most of what is out there is little more than spurious dreck. There are no editors, no fact-checkers, and no one to steer the author away from Bukowskian details on what they had for breakfast or how their crusty scab fell off, this afternoon.

Blogs are an easy way to reach a broader audience by Flickr user misterteacherBut that is the beauty of blogging: Self regulation at its very best. While 99.9% of blogs will be read only by their authors and three buddies, possibly coerced, quality asserts itself quickly and rises to the top. With no editorial straitjacket on the information or the quality of offerings, the consumer chooses by his action (reading—or not; spreading the word—or not, linking—or not) what makes a quality product. The “blogosphere” is like a little experimental universe validating consumer choice vs. regulation—and consumer choice has won a colossal victory. Trial and error may not help find the right surgeon, but it seems to be a great way to find your right media diet. By and large, blog consumers have shown an incredible sense for quality and reliability.

Blogging’s greatest “weakness” is thus its greatest strength: Web authors and their sites come with no expectations, claims, or certifications of quality or reliability. Precisely because there is no authority filtering our blogged content, because of this healthy lack of “if it is printed, it must be true”, the reader can and must judge for himself. Instead of floundering helplessly in a sea of (mis-) information (the self-serving admonition from media traditionalists), the internet news-and-entertainment hungry reader develops a knack for picking the cherries out of the innumerable offerings. The blogosphere has something for everyone. Viewpoints are chosen, not dictated, and niches of interest explored, not marginalized.

“Success” in blogging has many different meanings. The best writer on pencil-collecting can claim success if she has a few hundred regular readers. The best political blogs (Instapundit, The Washington Note, etc.) can make thousands of dollars a year from ads and donations from appreciative readers – and influence policy (and scoop the mainstream media) along the way. Heavily-frequented entertainment blogs (“CuteOverload” and “Go Fug Yourself” are two good examples) make plenty money (enough to withhold financial information) this way, averaging as many as 200,000 hits a day. Fine-arts Blogs, picking up the slack from larger newspapers, live off informal peer review in comment sections, recognition in their local community, and celebrate when they snag a press ticket for an opera at Covent Garden.

The beauty of blogging: Self regulation at its very best.

Left to the free market of ideas and instant reader feedback, good writing, quality and reliability in blogging secures a readership and reputation solely on merit. The analogy to “democracy” may be clichéd but the blogosphere is a prime example of Milton Friedman’s credo (“Capitalism and Freedom”) that minimal (or no) regulation and state licensing are best; they are too often a pretext to shut down competition not protect the populace.

All the more reason, then, why Friedman should be the patron saint of the Age of Blogging:  people with brains, networks, and powers of self-expression don't wait for journalism degrees anymore to have an impact. Indeed the response of 'mainstream' journalism to blogging (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em) vindicates Friedman's skepticism of credentialing like few other phenomena of the past 50 years.  This may be a sub-part of what Friedman saw as the power of the Internet:  "The Internet is the most effective instrument we have for globalization," he said in 2005, referring to the power of instant electronic connections for commercial purposes.  The same applies, of course, to the world of ideas, flourishing free of the state.


Image credit: "Blogs are an easy way to reach a broader audience" by Flickr user misterteacher

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