Mark Thoma asks What Do Blogs Do? His post focuses on econoblogs, and he lists five positive contributions. First, they "act as a filter on information". They give more weight to more important topics. They add new information. They speed things up, and "have a collective capability to respond" when a crisis hits. And fifth, they "motivate the media to take care in how they write about economics and other topics". For those who want the fuller version, here are his "preliminary thoughts":
1. Blogs are often criticized for simply echoing information. But in doing so, they provide information to readers. Blogs act as filters on information. When you come to trust a blog, or know it well enough to judge its content, the fact that an article is posted there tells you that the person running the blog thought it was important enough to bring to your attention. Blogs can also help by pointing out information that is misleading, wrong, etc.
2. Even if you don't fully trust any one information source, there is value in repetition. As blogs echo information, it gives a sense of its importance and credibility. If a report is only discussed in one place it might be notable, but in general if an issue is being discussed most places you happen to visit, that indicates the information has some significance. So, beyond the filtering role that blogs play as they echo information from other sources, they also give it weight, e.g. if all blogs are worried about how to interpret labor force participation statistics, that is notable. And on those occasions when blogs on both sides of the political fence (or whatever fence divides the issue) are discussing an issue and coming up with similar answers, that is informative, as are the cases when heated debate erupts among reputable blogs on opposite sides on an issue.
3. Blogs add new information. On occasion, bloggers are inclined to seek out new information, for example to present economic information graphically, in tables, descriptively, and so on that helps to place economic statistics in perspective or to point in new directions. Thus, novel information provided on blogs can buttress or rebut the topic of the day, or it can point in new directions altogether. And the information does not have to be novel to enlighten and inform a discussion. There is also a role for pointing to, say, existing academic research on topics being discussed in the news and elsewhere.
4. This is something that I think is new, or at least a speeded up version of what we had in the past. In a sense, a traditional column in the newspaper is a blog as are editorials. A columnist posts articles say twice a week, then comments come back in the form of letters to the editor. There are also discussion at work, and so on. The modern blog speeds this process up considerably and allows broader participation in the dissemination of information and in feedback. When there is an important question, say a proposal for an energy tax as we saw recently, instead of the discussion being dominated by a few columnists, editorials, letters to the editor, discussion on talk shows, etc., we have almost instantaneous discussion of these topics on blogs, some from people with expert credentials, along with feedback in comments, email, etc., and many rounds of discussion happen quickly as ideas richochet back and forth.
I think this will become important when we have a crisis of some sort, say a currency crisis, and there are important policy questions that require immediate reaction. We saw something like this after Hurricane Katrina with questions about whether the Fed should lower rates, pause, or continue increasing them in light of all the uncertainty and destruction that existed. Blogs began debating this topic almost immediately and added important elements to the discussion.
When a crisis hits, we have a collective capability to respond that did not exist in the past and it will be interesting to see how well it works when it is needed.
5. In addition to their filtering role, blogs also motivate the media to take care in how they write about economics and other topics. Though anyone writing publicly develops a thicker skin, it can't be fun to be skewered for something you have written, and tools like Google and The WayBack Machine hold people accountable for things they have written in the past in ways they never were before. It's no longer possible to present misleading points of view without being immediately and thoroughly rebutted in public and if the issue is important enough, on fairly prominent platforms.
I broadly agree with each of these five points. Blogs certainly can add value - though we should remember they can also manifest less attractive behaviours too. It's a pity Mark didn't also cover some of those negatives. As he writes:
So, what have I missed or gotten wrong? I suppose there's a whole post to be written about the downside of blogs, e.g. bad information can get echoed and magnified as well as good, so on balance are blogs a positive or negative influence, questions like that. But that will have to wait for another day, or perhaps others can fill in the missing pieces.
I'll see what I can do on that score this weekend...