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Sunday, October 30, 2005

a note from the Editor: one month in, community and Cambridge Common

When Cambridge Common was relaunched a little over a month ago, our email campaign billed the site as a space for alternative opinion; I wrote that we should "end the monopoly," referring to a structural problem created by the Crimson's domination of campus media and "truth." We were looking to be an alternative opinion source, a space for addressing on a more regular basis some of the big questions, a space for throwing spitballs at the Crimson, a space for opinions from the left in a different format. A lot of that has happened and in the process our readership has grown and become regular- over 300 visitors a day Monday through Thursday, around 1,500 visitors a week.

Something more important has happened at the same time: a community is beginning to form. Chimaobi and I have been joined by Deb and Katie, as well as readers like Guess Why, Yi-Ping, Sarika, Dave, C.G., Rob, Paloma and many anonymous contributors. Reader contributions have made the comments section the most valuable space on this site, pushing the four of us on the front page to flesh out our ideas and respond to criticism and allowing readers to contribute thoughts of their own. Discussions like those that resulted from Chimaobi's post about his experience in the black community at Harvard and in Boston, "Northern Discomfort," Deb's post about Asian American issues at Harvard, "Why Asian American Issues are Issues," and my posts about Final Clubs, all show that something more organic and interactive is existing here than could ever exist in more traditional media. (more in expanded post)

This is tremendously important to me. It acknowledges an imperfection in thought and a complexity of analysis and opinion that is almost never present in other forms of media. A Crimson staff ed, for example, is often the result of give and take and discussion similar to that which occurs in our threads. By the time it is in the paper for consumption, however, it is supposed to represent some sort of perfect piece of analysis, an opinion with an immaculate conception and often without the acknowledgments of the possible inconsistencies, the dissenting factors, and the ideological frameworks. The messy nature of opinion, of different frames of analysis, different sets of facts and the occasional (or often) inadequacies of the logic or writing itself, are all hidden behind the black and white text, away from public scrutiny. As Katie has pointed out, Cambridge Common allows for us to have a different conception of truth and opinion that is much more fluid and contingent, much messier and more complex.

And this is important not simply because truth is usually that messy and complex, but also because I think it's important to acknowledge that just because I run (or write for) a website or newspaper doesn't suddenly make me smarter than everyone else. This is especially true at a place like Harvard, where it is likely that while I may have more knowledge of one sliver of experience or academia, I am fundamentally ignorant in many many other areas in which those around me are quite brilliant. We write here, then, more out of a political desire to begin conversations and a passion for our opinions, but with full acknowledgment that we are fallible and that it is important to constantly subject ourselves to scrutiny by those who may (and often do) know more. While opinion writing does involve a leap of arrogance, the comments section is there to humble us for our own sake and for the sake of our readers. If the process works, than the result of any given conversation thread is simultaneously more thoughtful, more productive, and more engaging than simple front page opinion journalism.

All of this is a long way of me saying that, while new media and "blogs" can be easily and properly ridiculed in many ways for being trite vanity projects or ideological echo chambers (and I'm sure we have our moments of both), it is the contributions of the readers, the creation of a community as is beginning to occur, that prevents us from going that route. So thank you for coming and thank you for reading. If you have been contributing, whether with support or critique, explanation or anecdote, thank you. If you have not been, feel free to do so.


At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Elephant said...

So here's a question for you to consider. Some time ago a contributor accused your site of being biased, and you responded that it's an opinion site. Fair enough, but one can imagine an Op-Ed page that's unbiased as whole, because the standard commentators come from a variety of political backgrounds (i.e. more variety than a socialist, a feminist, and a Maoist)! So even if each person's opinion is quite biased (i.e. it is an opinion!) the normal columnists span a reasonable basis of opinions so that the page seems balanced. Big question for you: Would you consider adding a regular columnist who comes from the proverbial "other side of the aisle"?

Also, what is the real difference between a "blog" and so-called "traditional media?" The Crimson prints letters to the editor, sometimes prints dissents to staff editorials, sometimes prints point/counter-point pieces the same day, sometimes in subsequent issues, and admits a wide variety of columnists from all around the community. Some traditional media even have on-line forums where users post comments. Other than such forums, the main difference in "traditional media" is that the barrier to entry is higher, which should lead to fewer total submissions but of higher quality. So what's the advantage of the blog? Is the barrier of entry too high in the Crimson (i.e. there are more good submissions than there's space to print them or time to edit them)? Or does the blog admit lots of inferior submissions? Redundant ones? Is the advantage of a blog the same as in an alternative paper, but just easier (and cheaper) to run than a full-fledged print publication?

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Jamal Sprucewood said...

I think, technically, that I'm supposed to be the "other side of the aisle," but I've been terribly remiss in attending to my contributing editor status. It seems that there isn't much time "in the real world" to start philosophical debates (although I do try to make time to participate in the comments). And then if I started one, you can see from my posts last Spring that I spend quite a bit of time defending them.

I think Jim would just chalk it up to laziness, and, to a certain extent, he would be right.

At 7:25 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

So, first of all, I think it's hilarious that your post kind of answers its own questions. One thing that "new media" can do is publically and candidly interact with its audience in something a little closer to real time. If you were to right a similar "letter to the editor," for example, asking the Crimson or Washington Times or NYTimes or any other paper to answer a similar set of questions have you've asked of us (why don't you present a more "balanced" ideological perspective, how do you view the structure of your medium, etc.), they certainly would not directly and publically respond withing an hour and a half :)

Now, to the points themselves. I love that you refer to us as a "socialist, a feminist and a Maoist (oh my!)." One of the advantages of this type of "new media" is that you are allowed to do that, and I am forced to defend myself from being called these dirty dirty names. I am a feminist. Katie is a feminist. Chimaobi, I would guess, would describe himself as a feminist. Deb is a feminist. These all mean different things to each of us, as with any political label (try getting two GOPpers to agree on a definition of "conservative"!). I'm not really sure who the socialist and the Maoist are (Chip and I?), but I'll just assume that was one of those red-baiting techniques that has strangely held over in the conservative mind from the cold war as an effective technique for discrediting political opponents.

Anyway, Jamal is partially right. Last Spring, he was the "other side" of the coin (as if politics really happens in binary...) and Cambridge Common did make an effort to be a space for "normal" political discourse between widely diverging front page writers. However, most of us now are seeking to ask and answer questions that do not really fall into the categories of "liberal v. conservative," so I decided that it would make sense to recruit smart people who come from unique, but more cohesively "left" positions. If a conservative, or a anti-feminist, or a facist or a *gasp* communist feels that they would like to have space to write and that Cambridge Common is not representing their views, they are completely free to start their own blog. Start up cost was $0.

Also, I highly encourage self-described conservatives (shoutout to bikinipolitics) to jump into the discussions on the threads. I hope that, while Cambridge Common does come from a different space that most modern day "conservatives" might enjoy, that they do read and join the community. I have learned more about my politics from my libertarian roommate than from anyone else I know. Disagreement is very often what creates the friction necessary for new ideas (dialects anyone?). But, Cambridge Common is still a political website and, like the Perspective or the Salient or the Nation or the Weekly Standard, we are looking to express a certain perspective that we feel (in some broad sense of we, because the four of us all have very different politics) will make the world or America or Boston or Harvard (or even just our everyday interactions) more beautiful and just.

Finally, I would encourage anyone who is still trying to figure out how a blog functions as a media tool to simply flip around this site. Check out the three posts that I mentioned in this posts and read the conversations. I find each of those three posts incredibly meaningful, mostly because of conversations and ideas that followed them.

Heck, would you be reading what you're reading right now in the Crimson?

At 7:40 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

the first thing that was ever posted on Cambridge Common: "The Tao of Blogging: A public service to the mainstream meadia." http://cambridgecommon.blogspot.com/2005/04/tao-of-blogging.html

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Darn right I'm a feminist. I get it from my sister (what up, D).

I'm neither socialist nor Maoist, actually. The strand of political theory I ride for isn't taught at Harvard or other "normal" system-feeder schools. Gotta go holla at a certain old labor activist from Northern Italy who served 17 years in prison for B.S. charges against the State only to be elected to the Italian legislature from prison to understand what I'm feeling (hint, hint). Can you dig it?

The Crimson's current columnists are NOT well representative of the Harvard student body. Of the 10 columnists diversity is lacking in a number of respects such as race (NO Asians, Blacks, Latinos, or Native American columnists...NOT ONE!), gender (only two of the eight columnists are non-male), class year (six seniors, three juniors, only one sophomore and no freshmen), etc. That's just innate (besides class year, kinda) stuff. Not to mention ideological diversity...

I agree with Andrew that politics is SOOO much more complex than two sides of a coin. I actually regard Dems and Repubs (?) as the same side of a coin, just in different lighting. One is blatant and the other is surreptitious. In the opinion of Dave Jenkins '05 (2005 Ames Award Winner for being a HARD-CORE public servant), what a nation it would be if five political parties or progressively left ideologies were set up in the U.S. and residents of this murderous and unjust capitalist front of a democracy had to pick from those five. That would be hot. That would be (at least the beginnings of) equality. That would not be exploitative to human being for the sake of dollar, dollar bills ya'll. That would not be the United States of America.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Randy said...

Wow! A lot to comment on here. Let me sketch some ideas and come back. Elephant mentioned "barrier to entry" which certainly is a consideration in blogging vs. MSM. The result of the different size barriers, according to Elephant, is "quality". This basically is a form of the

Efficient Market Hypothesis.
Note first that it is a Hypothesis not a theorem or empirical fact [i.e. is

, but has not yet been falsified.] This ignores the highly concentrated corporate ownership of MSM which undoubtedly influences the content. "Fair and Balanced" is merely ideological cover. This is why there are a lot of leftish blogs. The effectiveness on the national scene is, I think, still unknown, but it is not zero. As for quality, Cambridge Common is clearly better than Fox. :)

I hope that you will embed more links outside CC. No special target in mind :). When people link to you it will push you up on the search engines. Linking to other people encourages them to link back to you. Occasional e-mails do work, but must be used sparingly in the age of spam. I am looking into RSS and such, but having trouble for some reason. Don't forget alums in your strategy.

Y'all are welcome to come to
the Blog Group at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. You might want to take turns coming. It's not all that spell binding, but there is some good stuff.

I have lot more to comment, but I have to get out of the blogosphere and join ... eke! ... real life! I'll be back, and you can always visit the guy by the door :) .


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