[first published in Norm’s Festscrift]

Damian Counsell

Norman Geras is an emeritus professor of politics, with well regarded books to his name. However it was not through these that I first became aware of him, but through his Weblog. ‘normblog’ is now an institution, one of only a handful of UK blogs worthy of the description. I suspect that its regular readers number in the tens of thousands and that hundreds of thousands have visited the site during its six years of existence. Although Norm is responsible for by far the greatest part of its content and he must be given credit for its extraordinary success, others have contributed to this achievement. Their contribution is, in turn, a result of Norm’s willingness to offer space to the opinions of others — even when those opinions differ from his own. As well as individual essays from friends, colleagues, comrades, opponents, and others; Norm publishes correspondence and runs regular slots, in which, for example, a different (dead-tree) writer each week writes about other writers, and a different blogger answers questions about him- or herself. Even without such contributions, normblog’s archive would still be a valuable scholarly resource in its own right.

Many people complain that, while the World Wide Web overflows with data, little of its content is true or useful information, and still less of it embodies any kind of wisdom. It is true that the medium is used to spread myths, publish libels, perpetrate fraud, cultivate hatred, and celebrate violence. (This has also long been true of the written word. One of the earliest and most prominent blogging software companies, the one responsible for hosting Norm’s blog in fact, refers the earlier technology of the printing press in its trade name: “Movable Type”.) Despite all this, the Web is a store of human knowledge unprecedented in its accessibility and scope. In return for its easy bounty, we have to apply more sophisticated forms of the skills we have had to cultivate since our ancestors first learned to speak: the ability to recognize accurate accounts of the external world, and the ability to identify worthwhile conclusions based on such accounts. There is both information and wisdom in normblog.

For most of my adult life I worked in research institutions or universities, doing biomedical science; but, although I have always followed politics, I have taken little interest in academic political studies. Scientists sip from a fire hose of current published research. They tend to specialize narrowly. When they venture outside their own area of professional interest, they also tend to restrict their intake to work that they think has wider importance, that makes claims that can bear their respective burdens of proof, and that meets certain standards of argumentation. Many scientific research publications fall short of these criteria. So many non-scientific academic publications fall below this threshold that few scientists take them seriously or even attend to them at all. This is unfortunate. The history and taxonomy of political thought, for example, are important subjects for higher study, and fine scholars document valuable insights in these areas. Scientists are not by definition better thinkers, but, within the hard sciences, nature and computation widely impose an inescapable discipline upon those who report their experiments and conclusions to their peers in good faith. Outside these external constraints, many scientists are as susceptible to faulty reasoning as their non-scientific peers. It is a shame that our educational institutions, including those devoted to the sciences (and those devoted to philosophy), do not spend more time teaching students to think rigorously.

This last concern is especially important now that so many students and scholars research and publish online. The Web was originally devised as a means by which dispersed groups of scientists could share research data and collaborate over the Internet (Net). Given the Net’s historical origins in US and UK military, telecoms, and academic R&D, it is not surprising that its architecture and ethos owe much to the western spirit of academic freedom and the First Amendment to the US constitution. The medium of the Web has low barriers to entry and, in much of the world, sets all-but-nominal limits on the quality of the messages it carries. For all the trouble this inherent openness has caused, it has been central to the dazzling growth of modern communications networks and the rapid evolution of the activities they mediate. Virtual life develops so much more rapidly than life in the real world that some of the virtual world’s citizens routinely refer to ‘Web years’, which are assumed to run an order of magnitude faster than years in real time.

I was early enough to the Internet to witness various protocols compete to occupy the space thereon that the Web dominates today—perhaps a few of those reading this will remember exploring the Net with something called ‘Gopher’. For years of Web time, I failed to appreciate that blogging software was the catalyst of another revolution. Like that of the WWW before it, this revolution was as much a product of a step change in usability as it was of a step increase in computational power. So the possibility of blogs attracted many new users to the Web—including people who had interesting things to say, but who had previously lacked not only the means to publish those things but an understanding of the technology that would allow them to do so at modest expense. Weblog software and weblog publishing companies made it possible for individuals to disseminate information, and then supplemented that gift by offering them means to exchange information. Weblogs are discussion machines. They enable humans to write, publish, read, comment, review and annotate. They connect people.

As a life-long programmer, when I started my own Weblog, I began by opening a program designed for editing computer code: I shaped the text of my blog entries by hand, and then uploaded it to my own Website, avoiding the basic commercial blogging services and software which existed then, and which were anyway cheap or free. Why would I need dedicated third-party software? If I became a more frequent blogger, I could always write my own code to do the housekeeping. How difficult could it be to weave text strings into a daily journal? For a living I wrote software for analyzing the three-dimensional structure of protein molecules! Hubris. It was as though I had started to write a novel by hand making my own paper. It was only when I took advantage of existing, collaboratively-written blogging programs (albeit running on my own Website) that my efforts became productive and anyone paid attention to what I wrote.

It is one of the great strengths of normblog that Norm used a commercial hosted blogging service from the outset. This choice of his was one reason why, once I had joined this new conversation, Norm was among the first of the other participants I noticed; but there was a more important and telling one: other people I knew drew my attention to him. They thought he was worth reading. Norm later became the first member of this new kind of Web tribe whom I met in person: in London in 2005, when he kindly bought me dinner, as he had done for other bloggers. This is typical of his generosity towards and interest in others. As an early and prominent UK political blogger, Norm was in a position to draw his many readers’ attention to other blogs and send traffic their way. He did so even when he disagreed profoundly with what they wrote.

Later, another early adopter and mutual blogging friend of ours, Jackie Danicki, said to me: ‘The trouble with Norm is that he’s such a nice guy. I don’t want people to get the idea that Marxists are like that.’ The problem is worse: Norm is not only a nice guy, but a clever, thoughtful, and moral person; and he still describes himself as a Marxist. The writings of Marx and Engels in my view are grandiose follies, monuments to the terrible consequences of uncoupling philosophical speculation from evidence, rigour, and test. They inspired enormities on a scale that is still hard to grasp. My disagreements with Marxism are deep and wide. However we do have common ground. My disagreements with Norm’s liberal and humanist views, as expressed in his writings away from Marx, are relatively minor and narrow.

I dismiss much that is written about politics by contemporary academics, and condemn and oppose Marxism in every manifestation I have encountered, including the qualified and informed variant outlined by Norm. Given my strongly felt views on this, why do I take a self-confessed Marxist, his blog, and his own thinking seriously? Why do I believe him to be a good man? I reached my answer first of all through an appreciation of his blog: a public, digital manifestation of the person behind it. As it is increasingly common for scholars to research and publish on the Web, so it is increasingly common for private individuals to meet one another first via that medium. This trend extends those ancient real-world skills of social discrimination that we have taken into the asynchronous, mediated world of written publication in the virtual world of the Web. Not only does the Web provide a medium for accessing ideas, it allows its readers to obtain further useful clues about their reliability. Since daily life is difficult without the ability to make judgments about what and whom to believe and since we spend more and more time on the Web, we need to find ways of judging online resources. In short, good judgment of online resources is something that every student and scholar must possess or acquire. I am going to use the specific and personal example of normblog, and of Norm himself, to address the more general, impersonal, and increasingly important question of how a reader can judge the worth of a resource on the Web.

The first and most immediately impressive quality of normblog is its scale. In the real world, if normblog were printed on paper and bound it would comprise several large volumes. One of the simplest definitions of a Weblog is ‘online diary’. There have been very few days in the years of its existence when there hasn’t been a new post on normblog, the overwhelming majority of them written by Norm himself; most days there are several. If, as I try to, you want to at least glance at each new item that he publishes, then you should take care not to let your gaze wander for more than a week or so. Quantity and quality are proverbially set in opposition to each other, but sites that are regularly updated by a human being tend not only to be more up-to-date, but also tend to contain more reliable information—and they offer more points of data upon which their veracity can be assessed. normblog is one such site.

It seems almost trivial to point out that the content of normblog has human origins, but one of the curious phenomena of the growth of the Web into the World’s biggest shopping mall (or red light district)—and one of the things that makes it harder to assess material published there than material published in the real world—is that, online, much of what is presented as new, natural content is either auto-generated by software or spliced together from the unaccredited efforts of others. There are both financial incentives to do this (advertising) and lower and lower costs involved (blogs make it easier for Web-native computer programs, “bots”, to publish too—and computer power continues to grow, alongside access to networks of zombie desktop PCs hijacked by malicious computer code). Many blog hosting companies devote substantial resources to suppressing and removing spam blogs, assembled from fake and/or filched content: so-called “splogs”.

Large volumes of real and original content are valuable things. The best way to identify such troves is to watch their riches accumulate over time, so that you can see they are coherent and consistent. This kind of long-term test is not always easy for an individual to conduct, but there are many eyes looking at the Web, enough that some of them will be looking in the same direction as you. The task of surveying an accumulation of content can be shared. This kind of passive collaboration takes place in the real world also, but it is so much easier online: you don’t even have to ask a friend “I’ve just started following Site X. Is it any good?”; you can read reviews of Site X; you can follow existing links to Site X from other sites you already trust; you can use checks developed by search engine companies, checks that identify ‘zombie’ Websites, to reassure yourself that not only is Site X a source of true and human content, but that it will not infect your own computer with malicious code if you interact with it.

So peer review and impact ranking exist online on a larger scale and more informal basis than in the ‘real’ world of academic publishing, and they serve at least one similar function. The views of others are our second useful metric. Indeed, ‘Google Rank’, the proprietary secret of the most successful search engine on the planet today, is built on the principle.
Most of those who reading this will already know that the Web makes both plagiarism and testing for plagiarism easier: copy a sentence from a suspicious source, surround it with quotation marks (to ensure that you are searching for those particular words in that particular order), and paste it into a search engine. If it turns out to have been published elsewhere, then something fishy is going on. So, when judging a blog, perhaps more than other kinds of Website, a third step in assessing it is to check that content presented as original truly is indeed original and that the site presenting it is its original source.

Another obvious and excellent thing about normblog is the simplicity of its page design. It is rendered in only three colours, in a single font of a single family and, for the most part, is free of graphics, animation, or photographs. Because of this, it is easy to read it on a large screen on a desktop PC and it is easy to read it—as many do, I am sure—on a netbook, phone, or other mobile device. Elegance is anathema to the Internet huckster or hooligan so even before reading the content of normblog, you sense, rightly, that the site belongs to neither.

In the real world, flashy presentation is harder—a trivial example: it is more expensive to print a colour document than a monochrome one. But, like so many other things in the virtual world, the price of dressing up ugly lies online tends toward zero: entire Website designs can be cloned in minutes. Indeed, it puzzles me that so many Web-based malefactors fail to take advantage of such possibilities. For example, why do online paranoiacs so often telegraph the flakiness of their claims with the flakiness of their site layouts? This apparent tendency, then, offers us a fourth quick-and-dirty guide: if a Website or blog looks a mess, then the thinking behind it is probably a mess too.

Bad prose need not signal bad thinking or untrustworthy content, but the link is a strong one. Superfluous apostrophes, confused tenses, and juvenile orthography flag the output of cranks. Norm takes great care with his grammar, spelling, and punctuation—especially commas: Norm’s deployment of the comma extends beyond bare correctness, through craft, into pointillism. In the real world, this is a less useful guide. Academic authors often have co-authors. Scholarly publications have reviewers. Dead tree publications have editors. Grammatically correct gibberish is not rare. Online authors usually write alone, feel less reason to copy edit their own output, and, even when they do, their fastidiousness is usually proportional to the quality of their deliberation. So here is a fifth indicator, one that can even help you to discriminate between the better and worse parts of a more generally trustworthy blog or Website.

Just as good writing is no guarantee of good content, good manners are no guarantee of good intentions. There are individuals whose great politeness is matched by their great spite. normblog not only has a civil surface, it also consistently appears—I do not presume to read Norm’s mind—to be written without malice. This has been all the more telling when others have used hate-filled language to attack Norm for taking what he believed to be moral positions on certain controversial contemporary issues.

normblog often laments the incivility of much writing on the Web and occasionally speculates as to its causes. Contemporary rudeness is not confined to the Web, but I think Norm and I agree that the anonymous and impersonal nature of the medium contribute to this phenomenon. Few of the worst offenders would address those they insult in the same way if they knew or could see them. normblog is not anonymous. The blame for any offence caused by the site would fall to him, as would that for any falsehood or libel. This matters all the more because Norm has a real world reputation worth protecting. Anonymous Websites are not necessarily unreliable sites, but their creators lack an incentive to cultivate trust. So we have a sixth, and a linked seventh, indicator: good bloggers are often gracious bloggers, and knowing that there is a human face behind a digital facade is all the more reassuring when that face belongs to an identifiable individual with face to lose.

I have briskly summarised qualities that often mark out worthwhile blogs and Websites and that are shared by normblog:

  1. They are updated often or regularly (by a human) for long periods of time.
  2. Others consider their content to be worthwhile.
  3. The content they present as original is original.
  4. Their design is clear and simple.
  5. Their use of language is correct.
  6. Their use of language is respectful.
  7. They are written by identifiable individuals with reputations worth protecting.

There are other, more subjective, reasons why I am, like so many others, a regular reader of normblog. These reasons would be equally applicable to other current paper publications. Norm knows what strong and weak arguments look like. He takes the trouble to read and take apart the contentions of media commentators whose logic long ago fell beneath a level of reasoning for which I could muster contempt. Further, he can be bothered to take their arguments apart while they are still topical. His dissections testify over and over again to the sorry state of certain recent debates and provide the rest of us with a convenient searchable scrapbook of the derangement of a public political class.

On normblog, Norm also writes about much more than politics in a similarly thoughtful way. His outside interests overlap with several of my own: the visual and performing arts, sport, literature, family life, popular culture, and the Web itself. Of course there are occasions when I disagree with what Norm says about these subjects too, but, when I do, I take a moment to reflect upon my reasons for doing so, something I could say of few other commentators, online or off. This is central to normblog’s appeal. The best sites on the Web, like normblog itself, are places I can go in the hope that my mind will be changed. I thank Norm for the years of his blog to date and look forward to reading normblog every day, I hope, for many more years to come.