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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why This Blog Sucks

Brian Leiter has posted his provocative essay on blogs at The Pocket Part, entitled "Why Blogs Are Bad for Legal Scholarship." His central point can be summed up in this paragraph:

People who run blogs tend to respond badly, indeed harshly, to the suggestion that blogs are not as important as their proprietors think they are. Be that as it may, my sense is that blogs have been bad for legal scholarship, leading to increased visibility for mediocre scholars and half-baked ideas and to a dumbing down of standards and judgments.

I agree with Brian that this blog is of minimal importance -- and am not offended at all by the suggestion that we might be providing increased visibility to mediocre scholars and half-baked ideas. Indeed, half-baked ideas are the bread and butter of interesting blog posts; and we love trying to get a discussion going to figure out if a half-baked idea should be put back in the oven for some more baking -- or whether it is time to abandon the idea altogether. As for whether we are helping mediocre scholars, I can only say that we do our best to tell you what we like and what interests us. This may have ripple or cascade effects that endow some mediocre tools will tons of SSRN downloads and journalistic respectability. But I suppose my view is that there are too many barriers to entry to get attention in the law world and this forum democratizes it just a bit. To get attention in the blogosphere, you don't need fancy letterhead or a fancy law review placement. Maybe that assists the mediocre. But at the least it gives some people a chance to get some recognition for their work.

Posted by Ethan Leib on September 21, 2006 at 09:37 AM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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Face it, Rickey -- Brian Leiter doesn't have anything to back up his factual claims. He claims that all the top legal blogs started in 2001 or 2002, but since he now pretends that he wasn't referring to Instapundit, the only candidate left is Volokh. All the other top legal blogs started in 2003-05. Then Leiter has the nerve to accuse someone who actually knows web statistics of "mouthing off."

Posted by: John Doe | Oct 2, 2006 3:20:51 PM

Give him a week. I've emailed him asking for his data, and though I've recieved no reply, he may simply be busy. No need to be nasty in this case.

Alternatively, we can always ask the Pocket Part if any data was submitted. Will Baude, I would have thought, would have at least checked up on this, given his familiarity with the medium.

Posted by: A. Rickey | Sep 27, 2006 11:19:20 AM

Well, I wonder if Mr. Leiter is coming back to provide us with the data to support his point? He made the very implausible claim that all of the "highly trafficked" legal bloggers are there because of a first-mover advantage, having started in 2001 and 2002. He even claimed that skeptics should start "thinking before you post," or should "look at the traffic rankings at some point before mouthing off."

Yet it seems that those accusations are best leveled at Mr. Leiter himself. He is the one who should have checked out traffic rankings before saying something so silly, especially given that both Prawfsblawg and Leiter's own law school blog are among the top legal blogs despite not having started in 2001 or 2002.

Posted by: John Doe | Sep 27, 2006 9:00:14 AM

Have to admit, I'm still stumped as to what site rankings I'm supposed to check. We all agree on Volokh: they're probably the top-ranked law bloggers. How Appealing starts in 2002, although Howard's an aggregator more than an author, so I'm not sure of his effects on legal scholarship: no news from Leiter as to whether to count him.* So that's two. Prof. Solum might be of the same order as Prof. Bainbridge (no data), but that still puts a blog started in 2003 in or at least near the top four.

Of course, the rankings aren't even that stable. Looking at the study I think John Doe was mentioning, Balkinization came in before Prof. Bainbridge, but currently Bainbridge comes out ahead. So really, we'd need some idea of what time period we're supposed to be dealing with here. That becomes more important the more tightly Leiter decides to define top legal blogs: if we're looking at the top three, there's probably a good deal of motion since 2002. If we're looking at the top ten (much more reasonable), there's probably less motion, but the argument is almost unsustainable.

So who are we missing?

*Apparently I shouldn't have concluded that Prof. Leiter meant to include Instapundit as a top legal blog. I can see why one wouldn't do so, but I was being charitable here: if Instapundit is included, it's one more data point in Prof. Leiter's favor, and he's rather thin on the ground for those. Ditto for How Appealing.

Posted by: A. Rickey | Sep 25, 2006 3:07:37 AM

Let's parse his eminence, Lord Leiter.

Mr. Rickey, I would have hoped that having graduated law school now you'd have started thinking before you post, but alas not.
End Quote

This lines just begs for sarcasm.

Mr. Leiter, I would have hoped that having graduated law school (so many years ago) now you'd have started thinking before you write online journal articles, but alas not. I guess Mr. Leiter should stick to philosophy and steer clear of anything requiring a modicum of data.

First, I was not thinking of Instapundit, which is a blog by a dumb law professor...
End Quote

Tsk tsk. Such bad form, Mr. Leiter sure throws around insults when he's safely behind his desk miles away. Professor Reynolds may not be the greatest legal scholar ever - but you can hardly call him dumb.

And second, the law-related blogs with the most traffic, including (but not limited to) Volokh, started in 2002. Maybe you should look at the traffic rankings at some point before mouthing off.
End Quote

Let's take just volokh. I'd put up Professor Volokh and Professor Kerr as "gatekeepers" against Mr. Leiter anyday.

Even if Leiter pulls out some ranking that supports his argument, there is hardly one that is definitive. The available data we do have goes more or less contrary to his assertions.

You know what. Leiter has me convinced! Where were the expert gatekeepers to keep his unsubstantiated shoddy scholarship out? By his article being published, he only proves his point.

Leiter wins!

Posted by: humblelawstudent | Sep 24, 2006 11:10:15 PM

Mr. Rickey -- I agree. I too am confident that Mr. Leiter would never publish something without firm factual support. Consider, for example, his many dire warnings 2.5 years ago about Bush's plan to institute a draft. What a good fortune for us readers that while the legal blogosphere is full of people who make pronouncements with little factual basis, it nonetheless has provided us with a prescient sage who can foretell legal developments that will not happen until at least three years in the future (if ever).

Posted by: John Doe | Sep 23, 2006 9:12:15 PM

Leiter's merely updated the Fable of the Keys. I'm not sure the Fable of the Keys is a real fable, but that's a discussion for another thread perhaps.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Sep 23, 2006 2:53:25 PM

John Doe:

It's important to remember that any purported ranking of websites based upon reported traffic is going to have its problems. For instance, Lawrence Lessig's blog is almost certainly underreported on the Truth Laid Bear site, simply because it doesn't cover RSS feeds and he doesn't seem to have a public Sitemeter. (Lessig's audience being quite tech-savvy, I'd imagine that he gets a good percentage of his hits through RSS.) I'm sure that Prof. Leiter would include Prof. Solum's blog in his list, but that again doesn't show up on TTLB. (Then again, how would he know its site statistics?) Also, you'd want more than a snapshot view of the rankings, because in any given month blogs with relatively low traffic (like legal blogs) will tend to vary in hits.

Nevertheless, you do express my considerable confusion at the Professor's claims, which he now seems to assert are based on actual research, and we should take him at his word. Contrary to Prof. Leiter's assertion, I did check what site rankings were available before publishing my critique. I'm also pretty good at analyzing site statistics, given that it was one of my job skills before I became a law student. Nothing I've seen would suggest that all the top-ranked legal blogs were started in 2001 and 2002.

But I'm sure that the Professor wouldn't publish something in Yale's law review, even in the Pocket Part, without first running the numbers himself. And he certainly wouldn't accuse me of "mouthing off" without having such a report ready to support his accusation. I'm sure that we'll see some data put forth from him, that we can analyze at our leisure, in good time.

Posted by: A. Rickey | Sep 23, 2006 2:03:42 PM

the law-related blogs with the most traffic, including (but not limited to) Volokh, started in 2002. Maybe you should look at the traffic rankings at some point before mouthing off.

Not limited to Volokh? Volokh did start in 2002, but who else? Maybe
*you* should look at the traffic rankings before publishing such unsupportable assertions in the Yale Law Journal's website.

According to this ranking, Volokh is at the top. Then Balkinization (2003). Bainbridge (2003). Sentencing Law and Policy (May 2004). Tax Prof (April 2004). Discourse.net (Sept. 2003). Conglomerate (a continuation of Venturpreneur, started at the end of October 2003). Eighth is PrawfsBlawg (whoo-hoo! started in 2005). Concurring Opinions (June 2005). Finally, tenth is Leiter's own Law School Reports (2005).

So say again which of the top legal blogs were started in 2001 or 2002? In fact, doesn't your OWN success with Law School Reports prove that it's possible to crack the top ten within a few months? You're not exactly the best person to be asserting that newcomers can't have a top legal blog anymore.

Posted by: John Doe | Sep 23, 2006 1:32:28 PM

Prof. Leiter:

Would you care to provide a source for that assertion?

There are two oft-cited sources of blogs ranked by traffic, here and here. Both list Bainbridge, who did not start in 2002. Balkinization starts (admittedly early) in 2003. So who, precisely, are we talking about? Now, these rankings are based on Truth Laid Bare, which admittedly doesn't cover some law-related blogs, but I'm perfectly willing to be corrected if you'd like to actually link to some statistics. Which blogs are you talking about, and what metrics (hits, visits, unique visits, etc.) are you using?

Posted by: A. Rickey | Sep 23, 2006 12:28:35 PM

Mr. Rickey, I would have hoped that having graduated law school now you'd have started thinking before you post, but alas not. First, I was not thinking of Instapundit, which is a blog by a dumb law professor, but not really a law-related blog. And second, the law-related blogs with the most traffic, including (but not limited to) Volokh, started in 2002. Maybe you should look at the traffic rankings at some point before mouthing off.

I haven't had a chance to read the other comments, but may by next week.

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Sep 23, 2006 11:16:35 AM

As always when reading Leiter, it's best to check his facts before you go on to consider his theories. He confidently asserts that "The most visible and highly trafficked law-related blogs have one, and only one, thing in common: they were started relatively early in the “blog boom,” that is, in 2001 or 2002." He uses this to support the idea that there's an enormous first-mover advantage among blogs.

This is ridiculous, for any number of reasons. First, I can't think of a single set of objective measures by which you would come up with a set of top "law-related" blogs that all started in 2001 and 2002. It's obvious that Leiter's in the midst of one of his frequent fits of jealous pique against Instapundit and Volokh, but those sites are hardly the only forces in the legal blog world. It doesn't take long to think of influential blogs (Bainbridge, for instance) that get significant enough traffic and notice to put them in any respectable top-five, and yet were only a twinkle in the eye of their writers in 2002.

Second, the "most-visible" and "most highly trafficked" sites are a ridiculous measure of the blogosphere, since they tend to be little more than aggregators. Instapundit, like Slashdot or other similar sites, provide little more than brief commentary on content created elsewhere. This provides a great deal of traffic and even influence, but including Instapundit as a "law-related blog" would be stretching the medium. (If Instapundit is a law-related blog, why isn't Kos? Sure, Kos isn't a law professor, but certainly being penned by a law professor doesn't serve to suddenly make Instapundit's frequent meanderings into space science, the "singularity" etc. legal topics.) Volokh, here, is a big exception to an otherwise general rule: it's a very high traffic site generating lots of original content. This makes its existence pretty remarkable, but why they have such a large audience is an article in itself.

Finally, anyone who's watched the blog world develop will remember that blogs from 2001 and 2002 have collapsed, and other from later have taken their place. This is hardly a medium characterized by lock-in. Leiter's merely updated the Fable of the Keys.

The world of blogs that Leiter talks about supports his argument. The trouble is that it bears a very limited relationship to the reality of the internet.

Posted by: A. Rickey | Sep 23, 2006 10:27:35 AM

The heart of Leiter's comment seems to rest on the "availability cascade" phenomenon described by Kuran and Sunstein. It's an important point -- blogs may lead to groupthink -- but I don't think it poses quite the risk for scholarship Leiter says it does.

Availability cascades are much less likely to occur where the relevant community has easy access to more reliable sources of information. As Shubha said above, "We are smart people; we can sort through nonsense." In other words, there is a distinction between claims that we ordinarily rely on others to provide evidence of, and claims we are able to verify ourselves. Law professors do not have to rely on word-of-mouth to determine which ideas are plausible and which aren't. Even nonspecialists in an area likely have enough familiarity with law and scholarship generally, or have knowledge that has percolated through trustworthy colleagues, to make some judgements about the quality of claims. Even a very slight faith in the market for blogs means that there is not a true cacophony of law blogs entirely devoid of any merit-based component, but rather the blogs that are more reliable in picking out good ideas and good articles will pick up more readers interested in that sort of thing. (Of course, some readers are interested only in politics, but given the title of Leiter's comment I assume we're not talking about them.)

I think Leiter anticipated the objection above; his response is that the ability of law professors to verify claims about merit is limited by the participation of two groups in identifying quality legal scholarship: students and journalists. The former select legal scholarship for publication and the latter determine who gets quoted in the news. Both groups have much less ability to verify claims about scholarship and are therefore more susceptible to an availability cascade.

I'm still not clear on how, exactly, that cascade is supposed to come about, however. Professor X pumps her friend Y's article on Generic Law Blog without telling her readers that Y is a friend and that the article is crap. Some student at a law journal might see that and get an unjustified positive impression of Y, and some journalist might add Y to his rolodex of experts. But wouldn't other professors comment on their own blogs (say, Leiter Reports) that in fact Y's article is crap and what the heck was X thinking? And wouldn't the students and journalists also see *those comments* and both (a) downgrade their opinion of Y, and (b) downgrade their opinion of X's blog? I think Leiter's attempt to preserve the availability cascade effect makes sense only if no one reads law blogs except for students and journalists. But clearly that isn't true. Another possibility is that law professors *themselves* are not good judges of quality, even when they sit down and read something. Thus, under this theory, they are uninformed observers subject to the same network effects as students and journalists. I don't know if Leiter believes that, but if it's true, it really has nothing to do with blogs.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Sep 21, 2006 4:33:05 PM

Brian Leiter is famous for being a blogger; his blog has brought him a tremendous amount of attention. So if he says that bloggers are mediocrities with half-baked ideas, what does that say about him?

Seriously, I think there are better ways to launch an attack against Instapundit and the Volokh Conspiracy.

Posted by: Luis P. V. | Sep 21, 2006 4:15:03 PM

Expanding the discussion beyond law blogs and into a discussion more generally about the internet and its role as knowledge-provider/democratizer, I'd like to recommend a threesome of articles that came out in the last few months in The New Yorker and The Atlantic (yes, I know, print media). Both the New Yorker and the Atlantic have run articles about Wikipedia in recent months (New Yorker, July 31, 2006; The Atlantic, September, 2006). And the New Yorker also ran a piece by Nicholas Lemann in its August 7, 2006 issue discussing blogs and their apparently democratizing aspects. For me, all three touch on aspects of Leiter's charge and the counter-arguments. Here are the links:

Posted by: Annecoos | Sep 21, 2006 1:34:20 PM

It seems like Leiter's central objection to blogging is that it democratizes information in a bad way. I disagree but I see his point. Blogs do make it possible for anyone to publish their opinions. The democratic problem of blogs is not only that ease of access and multiplicity of opinions, but also that the evaluative measure that promotes blog popularity is the acceptance and promotion of non-specialists. Leiter is specific on this point:

begin quote:

The underlying speculative psychology here may or may not be accurate, but the phenomenon seems real enough: an opinion that appears to be informed gains credibility by virtue of being repeated and thus becoming current in discourse.

The relevance to the blogging phenomenon should be clear enough. Imagine that the author of the widely read Generic Law Blog runs a glowing post on Monday morning declaring his good friend’s new article to be “an excellent discussion, much worth reading.”

:end quote

Leiter observes that this results in the puffery of work that truly informed opinion finds laughable.

I think much of what Leiter observes is true and none of it can be dismissed without thought. However, I am surprised that he does not recognize that this phenomenon is not a new one. The trend has long been the incredible multiplication of information, resulting in fields of expertise being ever more narrowly defined, and, the antidote for the problem are "mediating institutions." If in the old good world, there were not the problems in the bad new world, there would not be the New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and all the other filters, including, yes, journals and law reviews, all of these things that serve to filter the huge amount of information that there is to process. Parallel institutions are developing slowly on the internet. Most people read only a narrow section of the internet and rely on information provided by only a small number of sources. I read Leiter's piece as an argument for more "expert mediators." But I wonder if his argument isn't undercut by his example of Derrida. Isn't it the case that the same forces pre-internet resulted in the publication, puffery, and cult status of this figure, who Leiter contends deserves marginalia? Yes, the internet is capable of accelerating this process. However, it may well provide the antidote for it too. In the past, "intellectual frauds" were allowed to metastasize without receiving any corrective treatment. By the time that the scapel of critical judgement was brought to bear, it could not cut away all of the diseased flesh. Today, an alert Leiter or analogue can immediately make available a cure. Yes, poor information can explode faster than ever before. But it can also implode faster than ever before.

The problem that Leiter identifies is a real and significant one that demands attention. It is, however, not a new one. Blame the printing press, not the internet. And maybe the internet is the vaccine as well as the virus.

Cross-posted to my unpopular blog.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Sep 21, 2006 11:46:33 AM

It's worth noting that on his Law School Reports blog, Leiter posts a link to his essay and states that he doesn't know if the essay is right but he suspects it will stimulate discussion.

Whether he is right or not, this medium is here to stay. And I would like to add to Mr. Cassidy's comments from the perspective of a law student that the increased access to professors, especially far away professors, and their ideas through blogs is a boon. It can be quite exhilirating for a student when a comment is posted that warrants a response, even if it is a rebuke, from some of the scholars who host blogs.

Posted by: Jim Green | Sep 21, 2006 11:32:48 AM

The old adage, don't believe everything (or perhaps better anything) you read in the papers, applies with greater force to the Internet. The irony is I would not have heard of many legal academics who have blogs (including the root of this thread) without seeing their blogs. So, there seems to be a bit of biting the master's hand with the criticism.

We are smart people; we can sort through nonsense. If the academy is as open and as free as it claims to be, then let a thousand blogs bloom, and let us tend to our own gardens.

Posted by: Shubha Ghosh | Sep 21, 2006 11:14:27 AM

One important result of the democratizing effect that the blogosphere has on legal scholarship is to provide law students an avenue through which to expound their own half-baked ideas. In addition to getting some degree of recognition for their work, blogging provides law students a productive alternative to drowning in the drudgery of law school. And some law students are actually able to develop steady academic and professional readerships, indicating that they may in fact be positive contributors to the field, though they've yet to jump the full gambit of hoops.

Posted by: Christopher Cassidy | Sep 21, 2006 11:11:43 AM

I'm particularly sensitive to such criticism, being an adjunct instructor and no doubt what Brian would label a 'mediocre scholar,' so I enthusiastically concur with your response! In any case, who confuses the blogosphere with first-rate scholarship? To be sure, there may be some blurring of the boundaries, but it has allowed blokes like me to learn much more than I might have otherwise, given the increased access to some of the top legal minds in the profession. Brian seems a bit obsessed with 'gatekeeping.' Blogs have also allowed for the increased likelihood of truly interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary work, much more so than any number of departments or conferences under these rubrics have ever accomplished. What is more, it has increased the accessibility of creme-de-la-creme scholarship, and what can be wrong with that? Normative standards and judgments remain in the hands of disciplinary specialists and experts, why the anxiety? I wonder what Brian thinks about the posting of my bibliographies for the 'canons project' here, given my lack of formal training in the law....

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 21, 2006 10:13:19 AM

Brian normally doesn't shy away from naming names, as he does in this piece (except Derrida). Would it be too jejune to recommend a new motto?
PrawfsBlawg: a catalyst for increased visibility for mediocre scholars and half-baked ideas and to a dumbing down of standards and judgments.

Posted by: Amos | Sep 21, 2006 10:07:42 AM

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