Yesterday’s “smackdown” of Wenzel was not my most polite post (although, I don’t think it’s overly rude, either), but I defended it invoking Krugman’s recent defense of snark on the blogosphere. I’ve gotten some criticism that I should have left the snark out. Maybe the critics are right, but let me offer a defense of my tactics (in the spirit of Krugman’s argument).
Generally, we’re interested in being able to distinguish between valuable contributors and not-so-valuable contributors. One way to do this is to create signals, such as being published in high-end, scholarly journals. These journals, in turn, create their own institutions that help maintain the quality and accuracy of the signal, such as peer review. Another signal is the quality of the department of the academic. Or, you’ve followed this particular person for some time, and you are familiar with the quality of his or her output.
Many of these institutions don’t apply to the blogosphere. So, we need to create alternatives. Krugman proposes snark. Snark acts, in a way, as a peer-review. It’s a direct, and clear, way of making your opinion on the quality of another person’s output known. There’s nothing more direct than “[this person] shouldn’t be taken seriously (on these matters”).”
Maybe it comes off as rude. But, it’s not any more rude than using the term “Keynesian” as a way of distinguishing economists you should and shouldn’t read (I’m referring to the tendency of denoting anything that Rothbard didn’t explicitly approve of as “Keynesian” or “non-Austrian”). In fact, it’s hard to think of something worse than condemning an idea to what amounts to a wastebasket category, just because one or two economists you follow disagreed with it (or don’t explicitly agree with it — which oftentimes is interpreted as disagreement). Yet, this kind of activity doesn’t get criticized as much as straight-out questioning the quality of a blog’s output.
I do sympathize with the idea that it sucks to be called out like that. I was embarrassed when David Glasner smacked me down, and directly called some of the ideas I was advocating fallacies. But, Glasner was ultimately right. And, if the ideas I was spouting were completely wrong, he was within his rights to call me out on it. And if I were to have a history of disseminating bad theory on this blog, I’d expect people to call that out too. It should serve as an incentive to make sure I know what I’m talking about (I don’t always follow this rule as much as I should, but I’m trying!).
Maybe there are better ways of signaling quality. The blogosphere is still relatively young. Maybe a few years down the road the way we interact through this medium will change. But, for the time being, snark — but, more generally, being direct when gauging the quality of others’ output — is a good alternative to institutions that work in the academic world, but not so much on the blogosphere.