Battle of the blogs
A recent spiked-seminar interrogated the hype over weblogs.
Enormous claims are made for weblogs, or ‘blogs’ – online publications in diary format, where individuals publish comment and links to other online content. A seminar ‘Gone to the blogs: The blogging phenomenon in perspective’, produced by spiked and hosted by IBM on 17 September 2003, asked whether such claims are justified.
The four speakers were Brendan O’Neill, assistant editor of spiked; Perry de Havilland, partner with the Big Blog Company; James Crabtree, director of the iSociety project at the Work Foundation; and Bill Thompson, technology commentator at BBC News. Additionally, all four speakers run their own blogs.
Brendan O’Neill claimed that ‘some blogs are readable and interesting; many more are not’. He made a connection between the blogging phenomenon and the political climate, arguing that the phenomenon was a consequence of uncertainty and crisis in the media and the political establishment. Searching for a point of connection with a switched-on audience, many in the media and politics are drawn to blogs. So while many bloggers attack the media, the media strives to be associated with blogging, he said. Just look at how the Guardian has adopted Salam Pax, the ‘Baghdad blogger’.
Perry de Havilland began with the assertion that ‘blogs are evolutionising and not revolutionising journalism’. He said blogs were about punditry, not reporting. Blogs don’t advance democracy; rather, they offer an alternative means of social interaction. De Havilland made the point that bloggers are unaccountable, and suggested that the influence of blogging was being overplayed, mostly by bloggers themselves. But blogs, he concluded, ‘are heralding the end of business as usual’.
James Crabtree moved away from the political emphasis of the previous speakers. He accepted that ‘blogging hasn’t gotten very far yet’, but argued that blogs ‘will become increasingly significant if they can reach the mass market’. He considered some potential implications of this: would ‘mass amateur publishing’ suddenly blossom? What would the consequences of this be, for freedom of the press? Free speech is a good thing, but would people come to accept blog evidence as fact, when blogging lacks journalistic integrity?
Bill Thompson returned to politics. He said that, as with scepticism of the internet, premature scepticism of blogging’s capacity to aid democracy was unfounded. ‘If one believes in freedom of expression, one must believe in blogging. Giving people a voice is better than keeping them silent or, worse, letting others speak for them.’ He said that the mass market alone would decide both the impact and the efficacy of political blogging.
In the debate from the floor, usability consultant Louise Ferguson suggested that the ‘blogosphere’ was misogynistic. She questioned the political emphasis of debates about blogging. The effect of this emphasis, she argued, was to overlook the significance of – for example – teenage girls blogging their day-to-day activities. She suggested that the blogging community is ‘incestuous’, and added that the blogging phenomenon is a means of engaging children and promoting women’s issues.
The subsequent discussion leaned heavily on the political nature of blogging. There seemed to be a general consensus that if blogs mattered at all, it was because they had a part to play in politics. Alex Singleton, of the Adam Smith Institute, challenged Thompson – the more people that blogged, he said, the less the value of each blog. The political power of blogs becomes diluted with their proliferation, so democracy won’t benefit so much after all. Tom Coates, who runs Plasticbag.org, responded to Singleton’s point by saying that ‘crap weblogs don’t matter, because crap weblogs don’t get seen’.
Picking up on Brendan O’Neill’s comments, David Carr of the Big Blog Company said that if there was a crisis in the media or in the political establishment, ‘weblogs are a response, and not a solution’. Joe Kaplinsky said that the ‘collapse and decay of the public sphere and of public debate’ creates a vacuum in which responsiveness flourishes. He lamented the popularity of bad blogs, saying that unless we can distinguish the significant from the not so significant, we are reduced to ‘a sort of postmodern babble which won’t facilitate progress’.
Perry De Havilland argued that ‘blogs are individualistic’, and a means of self-elevation and self-promotion. Brendan O’Neill extended this point by referring to the ‘narcissism’ and ‘self-delusion’ of blogging. He took issue with the application of lofty phrases and soundbites – freedom of expression, democracy, etc – to blogging issues: this is false politicisation.
Vic Keegan, editor of the Guardian’s ‘Online’ supplement, said that blogs lacked originality. He made a comparison to the text messaging phenomenon, which five years ago was also considered a potentially useful political tool. Keegan was the first to raise the issue of editing, and specifically the lack of it with regards to blogging. He suggested that the lack of editing gives bloggers freedom and licence to explore, and that this is a positive quality that should be recognised and supported. It is this that gives the blogging phenomenon its true democratic power, because it is this that allows opinions reflective of the ‘mass market’ to be shared and debated.
But Josie Appleton of spiked countered that ‘editorial barriers to publication in “normal” media can be creative’, providing ‘discipline’ and ‘integrity’, as well as the crucial task of correcting the incorrect. Who would do this for bloggers the world over? If nobody would, how could we trust these bloggers?
David Wilcox of Partnerships Online said there were two sides to blogging: the blog and the blogger, the technology and the person. The relationship between the two, he said, warranted study. This relationship would tell all about the origins of the blogging phenomenon, the motivation of bloggers, and the potential of blogging as a means of bringing about societal change.
Ian Forrester made the point that in a blog you can separate style from substance, but in a newspaper you can’t. Design consultant Martyn Perks said that blogging encourages a free-for-all of ideas where ‘everything goes’. This is the relativism doctrine in action. There is, he said, ‘no aim for a higher level of debate’.
James Crabtree identified an ‘aesthetic sense of legitimacy’ in the blogosphere, where people would read other blogs purely because of the quality of the web page design, or the reputation of the blogger, and not because of the quality of the content. Beatrice Rogers, of the business organisation Intellect, argued that political blogging is the middle-class and elitist version of Fame Academy, and that blogging will eventually be integrated into the mainstream.
Rachel Rawlins, of the BBC World Service, suggested that the internationalisation of the blogging phenomenon could have positive consequences. She argued that the Baghdad blogger became a useful depository of sympathy, for those in the West who were against the war in Iraq.
In closing, Bill Thompson asked that blogging be encouraged. In this regard, there is ‘an ambassadorial role for all today’s bloggers’. Crabtree said that the ‘functional elitism’ of blogging was an unavoidable and practical aspect of the phenomenon – eventually, we will all be bloggers. De Havilland said that ‘blogging has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy’, arguing for a culture of blogging for blogging’s sake. O’Neill concluded the seminar with the reminder that blogging is not a revolution – there is a danger that blogging ‘may encourage a dislocation from politics, rather than re-engaging people’.
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