html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Alright friends, What did I miss?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Alright friends, What did I miss?

A good policy blog is a series of conversations among interested people guided by a named blogger who introduces topics and thought.

Is a guided conversation:

A good policy blog is a series of conversations guided by a blogger (or bloggers) who introduces topics and thought. The blogger finds and introduces topics according to her interest and expertise, then adds thought. Adding thought is the part that makes a policy blog more than a news aggregator; the blogger will put the item in context, show how the specific topic matters to the readers or reveals a larger trend or leads to an outcome. The blogger does work and leads the readers through a critical analysis.

A good policy blog is an extended conversation. One of the most compelling and powerful features of a blog is the capacity to respond quickly to new thought. Better than that, a blog can respond quickly to new concepts from a wide variety of sources; a good policy blog can engage other policy blogs, or respond just as easily to laypeople or a media report. In addition to the extra-blog conversation, a good policy blog will develop a strong, civil comments section, where verbal people will critique both the topic and the blogger’s analysis. That’s where the analysis gets hashed out, with commenters asking basic questions or offering interpretations based on different biases or opposing core values. When a blog has good commenters, the discussion a post prompts will often have more value than the content of the post. Readers sort themselves by what they like and write comments that mirror the blog; to get readers that will give thoughtful, rigorous comments, write thoughtful, rigorous posts.

Some of the things that a good policy blog does are the same as any good text-based blog does. Any good blog creates a blogroll the blogger is implicitly vouching for. Any good blog mixes up short punchy posts and longer substantive posts. Blogging is a media that allows straight-up opinion pieces, with only the merit of the piece and the reputation of the blogger for authority, and fact-based pieces, with strong documentation and transparent sourcing. A good policy blog does both. A policy blog, like any other blog, should develop a narrative arc (or a few narrative arcs) and cast of characters. Policy blogs can tell a policy story as it develops and return to it when it becomes interesting; the backstory is only a link away for new readers. As with any good blog, each post should stand alone for drive-by readers, even if it is one part of a complex policy discussion.

Written by a named author or authors:
Having a named author does several things*. First, people do better work when they know they’ll be signing it. Second, having a named author gives readers context. Over time, readers will pick up a blogger’s credentials and biases, and use those to put each post in context. Because people are used to remembering others’ traits, I think it is easier for readers to associate a package of credentials and biases with a persona. And, people who read a blog regularly come to like or dislike the blogger. Knowing who the blogger is hastens that affinity or disfavor.

Being a named author both offers and generates trust. A good policy blog will address complicated and contentious issues; you cannot discuss the issues at the center of a conflict without trust between the participants. Writing under a name extends an assurance to the reader that there is a person who is willing to be accountable for those words, that position, that assertion. Writing under a name offers a trust as well, that the author is willing to interact with the readers as herself. (S)he is trusting the readers first, at the least that they aren’t violent crazypeople or out to damage her, at the most that they will think hard and constructively and offer civil commentary (or be funny).

The audience for a good policy blog:
A few groups of people read policy blogs. The policy-junkies read a policy blog because they would read anything on the topic they love. They’re easy; you don’t have to write well for them. People who are current in their fields read a policy blog to track breaking thought on the topic. You don’t have to give a detailed backstory for them, but for this crowd, you do have to back up your assertions with good sources. People who need content and want someone else to do the thinking read policy blogs, which probably includes most people in any policy field; I’d bet some large sub-section of journalists, lobbyists, staffers for decision-makers, agency staff and advocates read policy blogs to know what to think on an issue.

Then there’s the group of readers I most admire. These are the bright people who are just looking for clear and interesting thought, on anything. These folks are attracted to the quality of thought, not the topic, and respond to the amount of work or originality in a post. They’ll read good posts on anything, long as it is a good post. Trust these people. They’ll keep you honest. Because they don’t know the topic, they’ll ask you questions that tell you where you left something out, or cheated over a relevant distinction, or didn’t make your reasoning clear. They’ll point out your biases to you. They’ll ask for more demanding posts and prompt new thoughts. They’ll agree with things or disagree with things and they know why. These are the readers you want to steadily gain; you want to write things they want to talk about with their other bright friends. As long as these people stick around, you’re writing a good policy blog.

*I have a good deal of respect for pseudonymous bloggers that value their handle's reputation. I understand that that is a persona as well and many of the arguments about names and accountability apply equally well to a pseudonymous blogger. Nevertheless, I think that representing yourself on the internet as yourself shows that you back your words with your very personhood. It is your final way to vouch for your words: "I said that, and this is who I am." I do understand the reasons a person would stay pseudonymous, and when I occasionally worry about my work finding the blog or attracting dangerous personal attention, I wonder if I should have made that trade-off.


Anonymous Mitch said...

What are your goals?

If the idea is to supplement in-person meetings where you go as a civil servant to describe (say) a plan and get public input, then I'm not sure a blog is the right format.

A blog heavily emphasizes what the author is saying; comments are much less prominent. So if the goal is to solicit commentary then a blog might not be the best style.

What kinds of information would you want to put in this thing? And how will most users want to absorb that information? You're right that narrative and dialogue are great ways of serializing complex topics so that people can digest them. On the other hand, in some situations something like a wiki is more appropriate. Wikis tend to encourage more of a topical organization instead of the chronological one that you'd get in a blog. Is the information only really relevant for a short period of time? Then a blog is great. If it's longer lasting, then chronological organization is less useful.

Another consideration is how much crazy and how much total participation you expect. If you expect substantial amounts of either, then moderation systems become extremely valuable. The grandaddy of these is slashdot, where users selected at random get "moderator points" to increase/decrease the score of each comment. And everyone uses the comment scores to cut through the dreck; you set a score threshold where you only see comments above a certain score. Since each post there gets hundreds (or thousands) of comments, being able to filter them is crucial.

Slashdot has spent a lot of time and thought fine-tuning their system to make it resistant to gaming, but it's still not perfect. In Slashdot's case, though, an imperfect system is way, way, better than nothing. If you don't expect many comments, though, then you may get away without one.

Lastly, I know you consider some of the stuff you write here "crass", but if you took away the personal stuff and the titillating stuff I for one would have a much harder time staying interested. That part humanizes you and makes it easier to have a conversation. It also makes it easier to evaluate the things you say. Knowing how you feel about engineering gives me (a non-specialist) some idea of the amount of weight I should attach to your engineering opinions.

Point being, including the human, personal side of things serves the goals of a policy discussion. I agree with you when you say "it is easier for readers to associate a package of credentials and biases with a persona". But given that, I wonder how much you'd really need to do things differently with a policy blog.

The world may well be ready for postmodern policy discussion. Once you start talking about having a "conversation" you're already halfway there, anyway.

6:37 AM  
Blogger jens said...

For a moment, I thought this was a "Coming Out" the bottom we'd find your full name, address, address of your parents, and maybe a collection of JPEGs that took us from baby pictures all the way to your most recent passport photo.

Oh well.

And for goodness sakes, definitely keep some tittilating stuff in there with the philosophy and the science! I am convinced that if tits are not occasionally tillated they begin to sag.

8:39 AM  
Anonymous ptm said...

I think you describe one model well. However, a blog doesn't have to be conversational or multidirectional to be good. Ezra Klein's blog is quite good on health policy, and it's because his writing on health policy is good.

He has good commenters and such, sure, but they don't make the blog.

Same applies to Marginal Revolution.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Megan said...


Excellent stuff. You're one of the ones I count on.


Booo! Didn't like your analogy.


Actually, I drew heavily on EzraKlein and Marginal Revolution when I was proposing this model. Both are definitely conversations - intra-blog, they bring good comments up to the front and address questions and concepts raised in the comments, and extra-blog they conduct public discussions with the other bloggers on their topics.

They aren't chatting with their commenters all day, but their comment sections are pretty substantive and influence the masthead bloggers.

10:09 AM  
Blogger jens said...

Megan, you are a difficult woman to please!

One of these days, though, I'll get you to say something nice to me, even if I AM a libertarian!


12:01 PM  
Blogger bobvis said...

You're right about how to treat the policy junkies. I think I've noticed on my own blog that by catering to the policy junkies for too long, I lost track of the need to avoid rehashing the same thing incessantly. Maybe I should have tried to identify my focal reader and catered to them. Oh well, posts only live a day.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous the Other Paul said...

A blog which has a very good comments section, due in large part to its proprietors' moderation skills, is Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light . A discussion of their moderating philosophy is here;
An explanation of disemvowelment (mentioned in #12 of the above-linked post and a nifty tool for dealing with trolls) is

Moderation techniques aside, I highly recommend reading the blog--it's really great, and the commenters are half the fun.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

I think you're being too judgemental and not attentive enough to complexity on the anonymity thing. The Federalist Papers, which some people (like me, for instance) think is the greatest work of political theory ever written, was written under anonymous handles. So were many important and pathbreaking contributions to 18th century political debate, it was standard practice at the time.

Anonymity is valuable for a couple of reasons:

--it prevents self-censorship; outrageous writing can be good writing.
--it allows people to express themselves without fear of retribution for their views.
--it allows views to be judged on an equal basis, without prejudice from the fame, infamy, or celebrity of the authors.

You are taking a real risk by not being anonymous, and I respect that. But a lot of people who are nonymous (what's the word for writing under your real name?) are professors, and aren't really risking much. Either because they are tenured, or else in an academic culture that really doesn't care about political views. Such people often look down on anonymous handles in a sort of snobbish which I find irritating. Especially given that the case against anonymity is simply not very strong -- it's easy to imagine numerous cases where the advantages of anonymity outweigh the disadvantages.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Anonymity has its place, but I think it is more appropriate for a one-off. If a blog is continuing series of encounters, the author will take on a persona regardless. Then we've shifted over to pseudonymity anyway.

the other Paul:

I have a post brewing about moderation. It isn't written yet. I'm waiting for a day when I feel especially righteous. I'm sure one will come along...

9:51 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

I agree pseudonymity is the relevant form of anonymity when we are talking about blogs, that's what I was referring to by anonymity. It is still importantly different than writing under your real name.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Right, and I have a lot of respect for pseudonymous bloggers who value their persona's reputation. I understand the trade-offs and I want their thought however we can get it. If the choice is anonymous or pseudonymous or nothing, then I'd want them to be pseudonymous/anonymous. If the choice is that we get their writings and they get punished, I'd rather they were pseudonymous/anonymous.

But, in the end, I still believe in claiming your words. Backing your words with your person is more of a commitment than backing your words with a detachable reputation, no matter how hard it would be to lose that reputation.

Respect for both options, though. I'm not dissing anyone here.

11:45 PM  
Blogger jens said...

> I have a post brewing about
> moderation. It isn't written yet.
> I'm waiting for a day when I feel
> especially righteous. I'm sure one
> will come along...

Just get another one of your posts noticed on, say, Crooked Timber and you will feel motivated.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Yep. You'd think I'd have motivation left over from last time.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Sifu Tweety said...

Pseudonymity is the bomb. I recommend it to everyone. Being yourself? Bo-ring.

11:56 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

Nevertheless, I think that representing yourself on the internet as yourself shows that you back your words with your very personhood.

This is a surprising opinion, because, frankly, I consider you to be operating pseudonymously. "Megan" may or may not be your real name -- without at least a last name, your readers here can't verify anything. A writer is only *identified* when the reader can associate the byline with the writer's other works, or job, or public appearances, or such. "Megan from Sacramento" doesn't link to anything but this blog, so you might as well call yourself the Naiad and there would be no difference at all.

I think I would argue that the value of a pseudonym is directly proportional to the amount of stuff it links to. In your case, "Megan from Sacramento" has built up a fairly substantial identity, but it's still a pseudonym.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Yeah, you're right. I'm definitely skirting that line. I won't put my full name on here, that's for sure. On the other hand, my name IS Megan and that is my image. I've named schools I've gone to and hinted very strongly at my employer. Anyone who did the search from the other direction, knowing my name and anything about me, would instantly know this blog to be mine.

So, yeah. I'm slightly pseudonymous myself. On the other hand, there is no way I could deny these works if I wanted to.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous ptm said...

Yeah, I was completely wrong here.

8:12 AM  

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