The text renaissance we’re experiencing today isn’t just about new writing and publishing tools. It’s also about new ways of working, collaborating, and authoring.
For instance, I created a simple component on my website that lets me attribute authorship of parts of text to another writer. This allowed me to collaborate with Kara, Drew, Edouard on our recent piece Premonition while maintaining our distinct voices. Using quotebacks to cite someone generously with context and linkbacks enables me to have a rich conversation another writer. Of course, one of the most interesting quotation-slash-collaborative-authoring phenomena is Twitter threading. “Tweetstorms” were around for a few years, but the move to 280 characters and the quote tweet feature really opened up the door for a new type of public knowledge work.
That brings me to the idea of blogger peer review. This phrase has been tumbling around in my mind for a while. In the university and research worlds, “peer review” is an editing, revision, and publishing workflow that must be strictly followed in order to publish in academic journals. But in the context of web publishing, or blogging, the idea of peer review could mean many different things. A rigorously reviewed journal intiative? A set of commenting and publishing practices? A way of revealing previous drafts of pieces? At Other Internet, we host our own blogger peer review group in Keybase, where we regularly workshop ideas and edit each others’ writing and research. I also have an ongoing weekly writing session with Headless Brands co-authors Laura Lotti and Sam Hart, which has become one of my most rewarding and generative intellectual collaborations. This too feels like one possible expression of blogger peer review.
I’m sure there are a bunch of similar groups out there with their own models of peer review, collaboration, and citation practices. I love how h0p3 of philosopher.life participates with his entire family in collaborative blogging. But the idea of blogger peer review, and new citation practices on the web, leads to an important and interesting question: just who gets to contribute to human knowledge?
Who gets to contribute to knowledge?
All over the web, people are thinking deeply and contributing to the great pool of human knowledge. As well as diarists and poets, there are also many blogs (viz. “web logs”) which contribute a type of knowledge upon which others rely and act. Jerry Brito blogs about cryptocurrency legal issues; danah boyd blogs about online social phenomena. Slate Star Codex blogs about god knows what, but people change their life because of him.
How does such information get legitimized, however? That is: how does it get discriminated from crank ideas and conspiracy theory? To date, we’ve mostly acted as if popular writing on the web “speaks for itself” — that its popularity alone validates its authority, with virality as a sort of proxy for “having been read and deemed worthy by the appropriate people.” This type of thinking is a legacy of interacting with institutional media like scientific journals and mainstream media.
Within mainstream media and university contexts, web writing is often treated as tenuous, unscientific, and un-authorized. In these places, even highest quality and most influential internet-originated writing is frequently relegated to the status of “cult popularity.” Only rarely do online-first takes on economics, management theory, cultural theory, and analytic philosophy, among others, make the leap into academia, that other internet of texts.1 There are perhaps numerous reasons why this is the case. A significant one, though, is the lack of coherent citation and attribution practices on the web.
While the up-front literature review portion of academic texts can be dull to read, this standardized format allows academics to quickly understand each others’ references, and how those references are being interpreted. On the web, viral ideas and terminology are frequently, both accidentally and strategically, taken out of context and misinterpreted. This is true of terms like “context collapse,” which is frequently used to refer to the missing bodily affordances of online conversation, but which was coined to discuss the cramming of multiple conversational contexts into one interface.
Like many social network sites, Twitter flattens multiple audiences into one – a phenomenon known as ‘context collapse’. The requirement to present a verifiable, singular identity makes it impossible to differ self-presentation strategies, creating tension as diverse groups of people flock to social network sites.
Similarly, Venkat’s “premium mediocre” idea certainly has become legitimized through its viral popularity, but nearly all references deploy only its weakest and most basic sense — an aesthetic — rather than the most crucial point of the concept:
As practiced by its core class of Bernie voters, premium mediocrity is ultimately a rational adaptive response to the challenge of scoring a middle-class life lottery ticket in the new economy. It is an economic and cultural rearguard action by young people launched into life from the old middle class, but not quite equipped to stay there, and trying to engineer a face-saving soft landing…somewhere.
Not all who participate in the culture of premium mediocrity share in the precarity that defines its core, trend-setting, thingness-defining sub-class, but precarity is the source of the grammar and visual aesthetic — and it is primarily visual — of premium mediocrity.
There will always be multiple ways of interpreting a text, but what happens on the web is less interpretary differences than sheer indeterminacy. The opposite of context collapse is context attrition, the rapid fragmentation of a situated knowledge artifact into a wider set of contexts, exploding opportunities for a process of review, debate, and consensus production. New ideas online thus often reduced to memes, a lowest-common-denominator version favoring transmission over nuance. As an evolutionary ecosystem in process, social media “selects” for knowledge packaged into this format. This is true, but not necesarily desirable, nor the only viable outcome.
Memes are one bit of evidence for this trend. Memes don’t just go to the log-level themselves, they witness the game of abstractions itself from the underbelly perspective, bracketing and framing them with sensory-phenomenological templates.— Venkatesh Rao (@vgr) June 7, 2020
In fact, there are exceptions that prove this rule about how knowledge gets legitimated online. We can learn from the areas on the internet that successfully resist context attrition and have managed to produce internally consistent knowledge and practices. These communities are often insular and impenetrable to outsiders. I’m again thinking here of LessWrong and the rationalist community, with its sequences, and in fact a custom set of interfaces that provide strong affordances for internal citation, quoting, response, and conversational debate. Another example might be conspiracy communities (this is not an intentional jab at the rationalist community here). Conspiracy communities cultivate their own specialized knowledge, often leaning on their own specialized citation graph, and strongly resist the influence of conflicting outsider knowledge. While conspiratorial knowledge rarely penetrates mainstream consciousness, the flat earther and breakaway civilization communities have, like the rationalist community, successfully produced their own rough consensuses and have a process for legitimating knowledge.
To return to academia, it should be clear that this is similar to how academic knowledge production happens. Labs, deparments, journals, and publications are the forums for disucssion, debate, citation and legitimation. People in the same field learn to share the same set of references, and even cross-disciplinary commentators learn learn to work within these contexts if they want to be accepted. Naturally there are undesirable consequences to this as well, such as citation cartels and, of course, the related reproducibility crisis. Could academic work benefit from exposure to the free-for-all of the open web? That “marketplace of ideas?” An interesting case study here is Alexey Guzey’s investigation of Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep.” Guzey examined Walker’s claims and examined each citation in Chapter 1, finding numerous “misinterpretations” and even fabrications. UC Berkeley’s response to these allegations have been dismissal, effectively denying Guzey’s contributions as valid scientific literature.
I’ve given these few case studies to provide a very rough sketch of different knowledge legitimation practices and what is at stake in them. Knowledge production in the academy—in both STEM fields and social sciences—and knowledge production online are very different environments and sets of practices. Each distinct realm will continue to exist. Yet “blogging” and “academic writing” can each learn from one another and profit from further cross-pollination.2 I believe that new citation, editing, and authorship practices can open new paths to legitimacy, validation, and importantly, refutation, for efforts originating from both sides.
Concretely, what does the desirable outcome of such cross-pollination look like? It would be anachronistic for internet-first writers to begin writing for academic journals. It’s still important to understand that the web is a new medium—in fact several new media—irrupting and colonizing earlier forms of information transmission from without and within. Today’s academic knowledge production, based on the production and dissemination of print texts, will not survive into the next century. At the same time, we clearly need more rigorous standards and practices for online writing to achieve the same level of validation and legitimacy. I’m interested in the Underlay project at MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group, which attempts to digitally represent knowledge in different fields as competing sets of assertions. Such an approach would allow us to understand the diversity of ways of understanding and orienting to different sets of information, an integrative, reconstructive, post-post-modern approach.
Toward this end, better web-native quoting, threading, and interrelated knowledge graphs—along with all their attendant new practices and behaviors—can enable a more stable set of interpretations for web writing. To me, this means that there are more opportunities for today’s blogs to become first-class citizens of the great process of human knowledge production. That’s blogger peer review.
(This has happened to me exactly once: my pieces on authenticity were cited in an anthropology paper. While I know I made a novel contribution to the topic, I’m sure this only happened because I was quite diligent about properly citing existing academic texts treating the subject.) ↩
A further case study here is the fraught relationship between Lesswrong and its spiritual leader, Elizier Yudkowsky, and professional philosophy. Graham Johnson of Suspended Reason has documented this. ↩