Institutional Memory

George Santayana warned that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Seth Godin, on the other hand, warns that telling someone that’s not the way we do things about here stifles innovation and creativity.  Fortunately, one can learn from the past without being constrained by it.

The blawgosphere can be troubling in its lack of institutional memory.

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group.

Institutional memory may be encouraged to preserve an ideology or way of work in such a group. Conversely, institutional memory may be ingrained to the point that it becomes hard to challenge if something is found to contradict that which was previously thought to have been correct.

Every newcomer to the blawgosphere sees virgin territory, a place where nothing existed until they arrived.  It smacks me in the face every time a commenter here informs me of a case that she believes critical to a current post, unaware that there are seven previous posts at SJ specifically on the subject.

But what really started me thinking about institutional memory, and yes, the blawgosphere has become an institution in my way of thinking, was  Blawg Review Ed’s twit of  old Number 38 by Evan Schaeffer.  The date on this BR was January 2, 2006, and it was posted at Evan’s weblog, Beyond the Underground, subtitled, Notes and observations since January, 2004.

What were you doing in January, 2004?

To provide a little context, Simple Justice was born on February 13, 2007.  I hadn’t even heard of the blawgosphere in January, 2004, no less considered becoming a part of it.  By the time I did, it was already in full bloom.  From Evan’s BR #38, you’ll find some familiar names:

In mixing it up, weblog authors instinctively know they should provide relevant, quality information. But what about opinion? Some lawyer-webloggers seem afraid their opinions will offend readers or generate unwanted controversy. But if you can say it on an Op-Ed page, you can say it in a weblog. Besides, in the blogging business, controversy is good.

Example At Crime & Federalism, Norm Pattis isn’t afraid of sharing his strong opinions. In “Just Move Padilla,” he chastises both the Bush administration and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for their handling of the Jose Padilla case. “All this pussyfooting around creating special rules, precedents and issues relating to the so-called war on terror devalues the currency of liberty.”

Example Colin Samuels of Infamy or Praise is another strong writer who isn’t afraid of sharing his opinions on a weblog. In “You Can’t Spell Sedition Without I,D,I,O,T, and S,” Samuels defends the right of citizens to engage in unpatriotic speech in wartime while at the same time recommending against it. Says Samuels, “As an American, you have the right to root against your own nation in time of war, but doing so does not make you a good American.”

Example Legal webloggers are notable for using their expertise to create posts containing analysis you just can’t find anywhere else. Considers these two recent Enron-related posts by Tom Kirkendall at Houston’s Clear Thinkers : “Causey plea deal expected today” and “Causey pleads to seven years.” Another site that contains great analysis is The Volokh Conspiracy. Did you see Orin Kerr’s recent post, “Legal Analysis of the NSA Domestic Surveillance Program“? Wow.

Even back then, posts about learning to blog from the old-timers were popular.  Then again, not every blawg from the old days survived.

Example At Crescat Sententia, Will Baude provides readers with two links on First Amendment issues in his post, “… Shall Make No Law …” Says economist David Friedman boldly in one of the linked pieces, “the existence of public schools is inconsistent with the First Amendment.”

Example Among law-related webloggers, it’s law students who seem to have the easiest time revealing their personalities on their weblogs. Examples abound, but I enjoyed the fun of waiting with Matt Schuh last week for the cable guy in his post at Matt Schuh Online, “Liveblogging Waiting for the Cable Company.”

Example There are many personal things, of course, that would be foolish to reveal on a weblog. How do you strike a balance? Scheherazade Fowler of Stay of Execution (a longtime legal weblogger who recently took a job outside the law) had a recent post on this very topic, titled “Private Journals and Real-Name Blogging.” Key quote: “If I were trying to use this blog to appear professional and accomplished, I wouldn’t write half the things I do.”

Ancient history, though at the time they were in their prime. 

The message is that there already exists a wealth of knowledge and experience in the blawgosphere, even though you’re not aware of it.  When you assume that no one has thought of that bit of brilliance that dawned on you as you read a post, or decided to put pen to paper (metaphorically), chances are pretty good that it’s not only been thought about, but written about.  Maybe even written about a dozen times.

When I first became aware of the existence of the blawgosphere, I went on a long walk, reading what the stalwarts wrote, seeing how the big time blawgs handled themselves, dealt with things, thought about our legal world.  To the extent anyone would give a hoot about anything I had to say, I realized that it would require that I mesh into an existing structure.  Not conform, so much, as not clash.

While my purpose from the outset was to have an outlet for my thoughts, I hoped to find others with whom to have a discussion about things that interested me.  It seems like a fun idea.  But it was apparent from the outset that all these well-established blawgs would either ignore my existence, or worse yet, crush me like a bug, if hubris guided my entry.  They were here.  They were good.  There was a reason why they were the big boys and I was some piddling newcomer.

By the first time I hit the “publish” button, there were some who wondered whether the blawgosphere was already stagnant, dying a slow death after everything had already been said.  It can feel that way sometimes.  That’s why new life, new blood, new ideas, are always needed.  That doesn’t mean, however, that just because an idea popped into someone’s head that it’s a good idea.  While the blawgosphere will always need new blood, it doesn’t necessarily need your blood.

A reader sent me a link the other day about a relatively new blog that I read initially then put on ignore.  The blogger, unhappy about being ignored, came up with some assumptions about why the established blawgs didn’t immediately recognize his genius and embrace his wisdom. 

He rationalized that others lacked his courage, his boldness, his insight.  Nah. He just overestimated the worth of his ideas, and underestimated the value of institutional memory.  He’s not the first newcomer who thought he could change the world overnight.

There’s a big blawgosphere out there.  Sure, it’s far fuller today than it was back in January, 2006 when Evan Schaeffer did Blawg Review #38.  But fuller doesn’t necessarily mean better.  We’re stuffed to the gills with junk, and whatever opportunity this afforded those lawyers whose purpose was to backlink and SEO their way to page one of Google, the ship has likely left the port and sailed around the world a few times.

But there’s still plenty of room for solid, quality thought in the blawgosphere.  Just remember, should you decide that today is the day you want to express your most brilliant thoughts, that others came before you.  It doesn’t mean your thoughts aren’t brilliant, but you would probably do well to remember that the blawgosphere didn’t come into existence the moment you arrived.

3 thoughts on “Institutional Memory

  1. Mike

    Why is it that folks who don’t even have a blogroll are the first to ask you link to them?

    I can understand one being so full of himself that he believes no one else matters….Yet as a matter of tactics, it seems stupid to ask for someone before you’ve added even nominal value to the exchange.

    I’m seeing more “non-functional narcissism”/solipsism. Used to be that guys with big heads still knew to kick something back to the rest of the filthy Earthlings. People now seem so full of themselves that it doesn’t even occur to them to recognize that other minds exist. Fewer people are kicking anything back – even when it’s to their own detriment.

  2. Ed.

    Colin Samuels describes this “other memory” in the following quote that we’ve adopted as the introduction to Blawg Review.

    “Where once we were isolated legal students, practitioners, and academics who could share our thoughts only with those in proximity, blogging and social media have turned us all into a kind of “other memory” for one another. The knowledge, experience, and insight we are able to access here, within our ever-expanding networks of colleagues and friends, colleagues-of-colleagues, friends-of-friends, is nothing short of amazing. By participating, we are able to give and receive and grow beyond ourselves while allowing others to grow as well. Thanks to our tools, these memories need not fade or become inaccessible, but we should always keep in mind that tools do not create — we do.”

    Well said.

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