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January 20, 2003

with Volokh, Reynolds, and Balkin

A little more than two weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the Association of American Law Schools Conference. Two of the panelists were famous bloggers (so I'll use their full names): Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh. I had not selected the panel—Amitai Etzioni had arranged the whole event—and I was so ignorant about blogging that I failed to mention their blogs when I introduced these two panelists. (Meeting them may partly explain why I got into this business.) In any case, I have continued to think a lot about the discussion that evening.

First of all, I've been thinking about public engagement. Professor Volokh graduated from UCLA with a BS in computer science at the age of 15, and then worked as programmer for some time before he became a law school professor. I asked him why he made the switch, and he explained that he wanted to lead a "public life" by testifying, writing opinion pieces for newspapers, etc. This kind of opportunity has a certain appeal for me, too, although I'm not sure that I could break into the mass media even if I tried—and I don't try very hard. The reason I don't try is that I want to lead a different kind of "public life." My goal is to help build and sustain public institutions or communities. That is quite different from expressing opinions (even informed and interesting ones) on broad matters of national or international concern. Institutions don't primarily need people to express opinions; they need organizational work and products appropriate to their mission. Also, the institutions within which someone like me can have an impact are necessarily limited in scope. They either work in particular geographical locations or else they deal with fairly narrow issues. Unless you're the Pope or the president, you can't work through institutions and deal directly with all the great issues of the world. So I think that there is a trade-off between addressing a big audience and working within organizations. I seem to have chosen the latter course.

Second, the panel was populated by First Amendment lawyers, and for them the Internet is primarily interesting as a venue for cheap speech. It's extremely expensive to communicate through media like print or television, but it's cheap to operate a Website or to send out bulk emails. Thus the Internet is supposed to be very good for freedom of speech. I find myself unpersuaded. The more people communicate on the Internet, the more they have to split the available audience, to the point that the average online "speaker" (that's me) probably talks to two or three people. Being able to communicate to such a small number is no great advance over the olden days, when you could put up a poster. Also, "cheap speech" often turns into the blather of chat rooms. That is because people abuse common spaces by dumping ill-informed or uncivil speech into them. So I have realized that I am interested in the possibilities of the Internet for "affordable speech," not "cheap speech." Given the new digital technology, we can now create such goods as streaming videos, interactive online maps, local newspapers, and structured deliberations. These goods cost thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. The result is a great advance for the First Amendment, as many more people can participate in creating things of value. However, "affordable speech" is not free—indeed, it's out of the reach of most community groups and non-profits. Which is why I am so interested in creating institutional support for public uses of the Internet.

January 20, 2003 5:12 PM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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