Selective quotation: A defense

Yes, another slow news month here in the demimonde of online content. This, if anything, is a problem with the links-and-commentary axis of the Weblog format: You must react rather than... what is the term? Proact?

Well, we at NUblog pose the question: Is it better to keep quiet until something comes along that’s worth talking about, or should we just give in and pretend that proact is an actual word, let alone an actual concept?

And speaking of the Weblog format: The difference between blogging and E-mailing is unintentionally highlighted by Michael Wolff, who keeps publishing online, albeit through his publisher, long after dismissing online content ventures entirely. He writes:

In large measure, our [E-mail] correspondents have no idea what exactly they’re reading – or, often, even where what they’re reading might be from. Sometimes they’ve seen, and have been passed, only offending paragraphs – print, in the digital world, is reformatted into soundbites. Friends and fellow ideological hobbyists collect and pass them on. Heresies are served like candy.

It’s an Internet thing – the result of forwarding and linking, cutting and pasting – but it is also a specific sort of conservative broadcast technique. You juxtapose sensibilities.... It’s reverse targeting – looking for the least receptive audience....

It’s a strange form of reprinting – not, as is customary, by people who like your work but by people who don’t like it. They publish to castigate. In fact, there’s often encouragement to write to the various authors of the offending pieces that are quoted or posted or linked on these sites. It’s punitive mail – organized hate mail. You’re not just being flamed in the Internet sense but, in some more or less formal ideological way, denounced. It’s a fatwa. [...]

What does this polarization and psychopathology mean – if anything?

It may represent the fundamentally warped and scary nature of the American public.

Or it may just mean that there is a certain kind of micromedia – the Internet, cable, E-mail – that, unlike most other forms of media, which need a wider audience, can subsist on the limited group that is interested in and passionate about politics. In other words, the E-mail we get is not remotely a representative response but a purely self-selected one. We’ve walked into a bar we shouldn’t have walked into.

And here’s a juicy part:

While the advantage of E-mail is to be one-on-one (who doesn’t read his or her own E-mail?), I suspect that the writer of an E-mail denouncement confidently feels that he or she is merely part of a greater American voice. (Often, when I have responded to some of this stuff, I’ve gotten an immediate, mortified apology – as though the denouncer didn’t quite realize that he or she was engaged in something more than a symbolic exercise.)

On that latter point, we look on with combined amusement and impatience at anyone who publishes online yet acts as though nobody has a right to comment on what they say. They call it “invasion of privacy.” But if publicly-posted Web pages are suddenly deemed “private,” then why bother posting public Web pages?

In E-mail, it is still possible to quote out of context, a phrase we usually hear from starlets and minor-league politicians after they were, in fact, quoted far too accurately for their own good. You can indeed copy and paste just the incriminating parts.

E-mail, in this way, is no better than print journalism. Let’s credit Wolff for making this plain for us: Print journalism is significantly deficient because you cannot check the quoted sources.

That was always a drawback, but we had become so inured to it that the true effects were not apparent until New Media™ came along. True to historical pattern, new media expose the truth about old media, whose vulnerable characteristics either adapt in the new environment or cause the host to wither and die.

In a Weblog posting, on the other hand, you almost always quote selectively. Is your selectiveness respectful and quasi-objective (do you delete parts that are irrelevant to your point but retain whatever is relevant whether you agree with it or not?) or do you use selective editing as a form of bloodsport?

It doesn’t really matter. As long as you cite the source, readers can compare your citation and annotations to the original. Even if you don’t cite the source, Google will eventually track down the original, with uncommon exceptions. (Accordingly, don’t bother deleting anything.) Or someone will simply copy and paste from the original, save it as text and post it, or retype it from scratch. (Unimportant contents may nonetheless be deleted, as in posting E-mail conversations – you don’t need to show full headers or previously-quoted text. Heaven knows we’re familiar with the implications there.)

Or, if the original documents are locked behind some kind of firewall, someone will provide direct links (Cf. U.K. accessible cinema) so you can download or read the originals and Google can spider and reformat them.

(We apologize for name-dropping Google so much, but life just would not be the same without it.)

The links-and-commentary genre, then, provides a quasidemocratic bulwark against outright demagoguery: Quote as selectively as you want, and comment any way you wish, but don’t expect everybody to take your word for it. We can check your sources ourselves, thank you very much.

(HTML technique: You can add cite="" to the <blockquote></blockquote> element. Just fill in the URL you’re quoting: <blockquote cite="">. Browser support for the cite="" attribute is poor; iCab and Mozilla/Netscape 6 are the only known browsers that understand it. Using cite="" is a sufficient citation in abstract theoretical terms, but in practice you also have to include an ordinary visible hyperlink. The NUblog uses this backward-compatible approach. If you’re a keener and use the <q></q> element, it too can take cite="", but really, why bother?)

Online newspapers can profit from this ability to quote. When discussing new policy papers or anything else available online, the print edition can merely quote from it, while the online edition may quote from it and link to it.

How can E-mail get around the problem? Simple: Include a hyperlink to the original. (Do not interpret this advice as authorizing HTML-formatted E-mail.) We don’t expect the correspondents Michael Wolff complains about to go to all that trouble; among other things, their original source probably left out the URL in the first place, in the great right-wing tradition of counseling believers to picket or denounce a cultural work without reading or seeing all of it first.

Weblogs are an opinionated medium, with authors who either engage in microdetailed topic obsessions or have axes to grind. When carried out properly, however, even seemingly one-sided links and commentary can boast of greater fairness and fidelity to sources than old media.

Posted on 2002-02-18