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Gresham’s Law for the Blogosphere?

June 8th, 2006 · 1 Comment

This post over at TPMCafe about the folly of supposing that a “most blogged about” article is apt to be particularly important (or well written or, well, accurate) got me thinking about an embryonic idea I’d tossed out here some time back in the context of academia. There’s a monetary phenomenon in economics described by Gresham’s Law, which is usually summarized as: “Bad money drives out good.” The idea is that if you’ve got (for instance) legal tender laws requiring that two currencies be widely accepted, and at some fixed rate of exchange, and one of them is “bad money,” in that it’s more subject to inflation or otherwise having its value degraded, people are going to hang on to the stronger currency and prefer to spend the “bad money” whenever possible. The result is that the latter ends up being the one in wide circulation.

I’m wondering whether there mightn’t be an analogous phenomenon in the world of online punditry, a Gresham’s Law of blogging. And since narcissism is the blogger’s privilege, I’ll call it Sanchez’s Blogospheric Corollary to Gresham’s Law.

I’m not just thinking here of the complaint we’re accustomed to hearing from many a disillusioned blog-booster: Some of the worst hacks draw some of the largest audiences by simply confirming the preexisting beliefs of partisan readers, and even some initially-interesting writers fall victim to the pundit’s equivalent of regulatory capture—as long as I’m coining terms let’s call it “editorial capture”—eventually becoming tedious little lab rats, forever pushing whatever lever they’ve learned triggers the sweet stimulus of audience approval. Those are punditry’s perennial curses, and if it’s disappointing to find they hold sway in our brave bloggy new world, it’s a stale problem rather than some fresh hell.

Rather, I’m positing a phenomenon that relies specifically on the blogosphere’s vaunted interactivity. Because a lot of what political bloggers do—certainly a fair amount of what I do—is hunt down bad arguments on the Other Side to rebut, mock, fisk, deconstruct, and otherwise take the piss out of. But hey, there’s only so much time in the day. Given the choice between an ultimately misguided but thoughtful post, for which the aforementioned piss-taking might require some research or careful grappling with facially plausible arguments, and some hack’s latest howler, a lot of us are going to find it tempting to take the easy shot. I know there are definitely a few sites I visit almost exclusively to hunt for fodder—places I know I won’t just find ideas I disagree with intensely, but ideas I disagree with intensely backed by moronic arguments that are good for a bit of fun. I can’t say for sure how widespread that instinct is, but there are certain sites I have to suspect get a decent percentage of their traffic from links of the ritualistic “look what reprehensible nonsense the Other Side has cooked up today” variety.

Of course, this can’t be a pure race to the bottom, because whomever you’re picking on has to have enough appeal to the Other Side’s rank and file to be a credible representative of that position. But it’s also easy to imagine a kind of feedback effect that might tend to augment and lock in that representative status—a thought I owe to this recent Ace of Spades post offering– let’s say a somewhat self-flattering account of why folks on the left dislike blogger Jeff Goldstein. Because if the hated enemy on the Other Side mocks and despises a particular blogger, they’ve got to be doing something right. The gates, it turns out, are wherever the barbarians happen to be massing. And there’s a familiar water-cooler phenomenon, wherein something tends to become a stable focus of discussion because that’s what people are discussing: You watch Lost whether or not that’s the show you’d most prefer to see on the merits, because it’s the one you expect everyone to be talking about the next day (and everyone else, sharing the same expectation, does the same).

I suppose I should add the caveat that I’m laying this out more because I think it’s an interesting narrative than because I think it’s true, or at any rate, the whole truth. I do actually think the blogosphere is pretty good at sifting wheat from chaff a lot of the time. But this is, at least, a fun sort of invisible hand explanation of why you might see some weak sites rising to prominence without having to suppose that the readers who find it ideologically congenial are especially intellectually lazy or knee-jerk or what have you.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Stephen // Jun 8, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    I recommend the work of Albert Jay Nock. He expanded on the idea of Gersham’s Law, applying it to most areas of mass consumer growth. I find it amusing that so few Libertarians read him these days, especially since he was one of the intellectual god fathers of the movement.