The Change This Manifesto has been floating around for a few days:
In the Internet (and especially blogging), we see the glimpse of an alternative. Taken over time, many of the best blogs create a thoughtful, useful argument that actually teaches readers something.
Alas, blogging is falling into the same trap as many other forms of media. The short form that works so well online attracts more readers than the long form. Worse, most blogs stake out an emotional position and then preach to the converted, as opposed to challenging people to think in a new way.
So we’re launching ChangeThis. The bet?
We’re betting that a signicant portion of the population wants to hear thoughtful, rational, constructive arguments about important issues. […]
ChangeThis doesn’t publish e-books or manuscripts or manuals. Instead, we facilitate the spread of thoughtful arguments…arguments we call manifestos. A manifesto is a five-, ten- or twenty-page PDF
file that makes a case. It outlines in careful, thoughtful language why you might want to think about an issue differently.
It’s obvious this will fail. Why it will fail, however, is instructive.
Change This is one of the last stands for an idea of the Old Left — media = force. This belief, present since Marx and Engels put state control of media on the Communist Manifesto’s To Do list, says that media is a strong locus of control over the individual. In this view, when you alter media, you alter the public’s worldview, as they are both pliable and mute.
This idea was attractive, because it took note of the supply-side control of media in the era when everything went mass. It was so attractive in fact, that even when the internet started to erode that supply-side control, most of the O.L. denied that this was happening, lumping social communication like mailing lists and weblogs together with traditional broadcast media, because to admit the alternate possibility — that people could now produce as well as consume, and this would not necessarily lead to a groundswell of support for the left — was too terrifying to contemplate.
(This is the source, incidentally, of much of the anguish by the O.L. over the war-bloggers. Populist expression is not supposed to be conservative.)
Look at the charge Change This lays at the feet of weblogging — people like to read short things they agree with more than long things they disagree with. True enough, of course, but Change This assumes that the audience a weblog has is somehow god-given, and that a weblogger’s choice of subject is de-coupled from their audience. This is the key assumption of ‘media = force’ — you can manipulate your audience as you like.
In fact, the opposite is the case — if the most popular weblogs are trafficking in cant, that’s because of the readers, not the writers, since it is the readers who decide which weblogs are popular.
And notice what they don’t mention? Comments and trackbacks. They regard a weblog as a publication, and a post as a stand-alone piece, rather than regarding interlinked weblogs as an ecosystem of argument. And why do they ignore the central fact of weblogging as argument? Because admitting that posts are not pieces and that readers are also writers would upset their view of the problem as “We publish, you distribute.”
Change This doesn’t like weblogs because they don’t want any backtalk; their main goal is to restore the orderly progression of outbound ideas from producer to consumer. Every aspect of their Manifesto, from the choice of the word manifesto on down, screams contempt for the reader, whose principle job is as a super-distribution network.
And then there’s the odd reference to producing PDFs. In the middle of announcing their plans to rescue intellectual discourse, they suddenly point to a specific document format; it’s like listing the brand of knife the chef uses on a menu. What do PDFs have to do with Change This’s larger goals?
And the answer, of course, is ‘Everything.’ PDF is the ultimate no-backtalk format. It is designed for the page, not the screen, can’t be annotated, has no provision for comments and nor can it host any trackbacks — in short, it is almost useless as a site for subsequent reference to the very conversations Change This says they want to stir up.
If their ideas were any good, they’d put them out where people can talk about them. To do so, though, would open up the criticism they say they encourage but actually fear. They want the old days back, where one could publish a magazine of serious discourse without having to deal with the possibility that the audience might have something serious to say in reply. Alas, those days are gone, and Change This’s attempt to re-create the muteness of anti-social media is little more than a nostalgia trip.