Some thoughts on witnessing [Thoughts following discussions at the Berkman Center's Conference on Blogging, Credibility, and Journalism]
The brothers who made Twin Fall, Idaho, made another, stranger movie a few years later – Northfork. Its a movie about a small town dying in a moment, as all the residents have to leave because of a new damn being built. Its also a movie about wings, with amazing, strange black and white images of Montana, angels, and men in bowler hats. But I'm not sure I would recommend it without the DVD, where you get to watch Nick Nolte talking about witnessing. He’s asked about the movie but he ends up talking about his mother’s death, how she wanted him there to watch her die—not to care for her, not to comfort her, but to witness her. In the DVD he’s sitting in a formal chair with a flower garden behind him and you watch him just talk, completely unafraid, poetic, about this strange but very deep human need to be witnessed:
"...we come into this world alone, and that's pretty much how we leave. In between, we just want someone to notice us - to witness to the fact that we're here, that we matter."
Ethan Zuckerman writes about this in his research on global media attention, finding a pretty close correlation between the GDP of your country and the odds that your life and death will be witnessed.
There are so many ways to approach witnessing online but I return, again and again, to comparing this new effort at truth-seeking to the truth-seeking framework I know: trials. In some cultures for some crimes, you need multiple witnesses before you can even bring a case – in this country and culture, there are no number requirements. A jury can decide to listen to hundreds of people saying one thing, but trust the one witness that says the opposite. We refuse, in our trials, to quantify what makes a story – there’s a whole body of law, differing state to state, about what makes a credible witness, including some law that goes directly against what pyschological research has shown us. For example, there’s a good body of research showing that eyewitness certainty and accuracy are not positively correlated, but juries are instructed they can consider the certainty of the eyewitness as evidence of probity. Likewise, eyewitnesses who are victims are often less accurate than those who are bystanders, but victims are credited with special probity in many courts. And the core of the American system of trial is the right of an accused to “confront” his or her witnesses in a physical space. We store enormous credibility on witnessing in person. In the blogosphere, we’re trying, collectively, to work out some of the same problems – what do we credit, what do we trust, who do we trust – do we, as in law, put special value on “excited utterances” and “statements against interest” and so forth? We credit those “who were there” but we don’t get to confront them, examine demeanor, examine – and judge on—the hand creeping up to scratch the face, the deflected gaze.
The signals on which we build trust are the web page, the history, the links, the references, the words, and in a few cases the pictures. “Take down your web page!” someone said to me yesterday, “It’s ugly!” “If you’re going to keep blogging get a nicer page” – echoing what David Weinberger said last night about his web page “being him online.” I felt like my when I did when mother insisted that you don’t wear T-shirts to the first day of school: both shamed and understanding, but a little resistant. As a witness, must I really wear my best suit to court?
The revolution in online witnessing also creates a strange reverse echo of what we’ve seen happen in jury trials. My new friend Fern was telling me the other day about the history of juries. As I understand it (please correct me!), local lords were abusing some of the power in communities, so the people of England in the 1500s asked the King to help. He sent his councilors out to the villages to find out what was going on, to intercede on the part of the people. When there was a dispute (who murdered Puck?) his councilors would go into the community and find community members and community leaders who knew everyone and could tell the councilor who they should trust and what really happened. The group – which became a group of 12, which then became a jury – were not impartial judges, but witnesses. Over time, we’ve turned the jury system into the mirror image of this idea – the jurors know nothing about the case, and therefore are the best to judge.
Compare what has been our other big truth-seeking mechanism, journalism. One model of journalism (and very few, I think, stick to the purist idea of this, but bear with me) says that the journalists are good reporters because they are not from the community. A stranger makes a better journalist than a friend; the best journalist is detached. When people get excited about citizen journalism (people including myself), we get excited about news – information and framing – coming from a much wider group of storytellers, but also a group that reflects and is the community – the jury of the 1500s.
But I can't fit this into a box -- truth seeking mechanisms are not only about truth, they are also, as Nolte was talking about, about the act of witnessing itself.