Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Blog on Blog

Financial Times journalist Trevor Butterworth has written a thoughtful, sceptical article on blogging. His mission: to deflate the hype which suggests that blogs are the new big thing and will take over a substantial part of the role of the mainstream media.

He points out that almost no bloggers make any money, and that most political blogging, at least, is parasitical ("fleas sucking from fleas") on traditional media, where people still do real research and write proper, thoughtful articles. He laments the low quality, stream of consciousness style of the 4-5 posts-a-day aesthetic, and wonders what George Orwell or Karl Marx would have been like, had they been able to blog.

Mostly commonsensical stuff, spiced with a bit of traditional journo's defensiveness. He does feel the need to throw in a "but what are blogs" bit; supposedly 62 percent of people still don't know. Hmmm...

The FT have set up a blog for people to comment on the original article, so I thought I'd have my say. I was preceded by about 80 previous comments, though many of them are Trevor responding in full to other people's comments. Apparently he just got kicked out of the wi-fi cafe where he was hanging out - just after I had posted my comment. So I don't know whether I'll get a response to my two cents, which is below:

[start Bidsta comment]
Trevor, great article. I agree with most of what you say: blogs are way overhyped, both as something “new”, and as a challenge to the role of the mainstream media. As you note, the economics are terrible at the moment, even for popular bloggers.

And yes, opinion has now become the new pornography. It’s a flea-on-flea feeding frenzy. And at some point there has to be some meat, so the likes of the New York Times will always be needed to generate some substance and act as an anchor for debates.

You wonder what the ability to blog might have done for writers like Orwell who were overinclined to share their every impression and opinion. It’s true that the ease of publishing leads to an atomization of discourse, and acts against the discipline needed to write something half decent. Every blogger knows the pressure to keep content rolling in order to maintain even the small audience he might have (“post or perish”, you might say).

But I think your discussion is overall a little pessimistic. You look at blogs as a media phenomenon and conclude that they’re not the revolution they’re cracked up to be. But you pass a little lightly over the role they can have in holding the established media to account. The endless dissecting and deconstructing of news articles may get tiresome, but it’s better than just sucking up the scandal mongering and warmed-over press releases forwarded to us by the corporate press.

For the non-Europeans among us who were never able to sift through the erudite alternatives of the Times, The Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent, it’s exciting not to have to simply be passively instructed on “the issues” by an increasingly monolithic media establishment.

Also, though you discuss the LA Times’ disastrous wiki-torial, you don’t mention at all the great triumph of internet democratism: Wikipedia, which is reckoned to be as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica, and is infinitely more up-to-date and in tune with the zeitgeist. The Invisible Hand of the information market really works!

Is it all just pointless scribbling? Marx was obviously suffering from cabin fever when he grumbled of his and Engels’ journalism that “Ce n’est pas le guerre” – but there’s a flipside to being action-oriented. You can heroically struggle for years, but if no one ever documents it, did it really happen? If so, what did it mean?

I’ve recently been reading John Pilger’s collection of investigative journalism, which besides being heroic, inspiring stuff, gives an understanding of how difficult it can be to take an unpopular angle or uncover something that people have an interest in not knowing about.

It’s just possible that blogs could make this kind of writing easier. At the least, they offer a medium for reporting and opinion which is fresher, more direct, more personal, perhaps more gonzo, than would fit within the constraints of most publications concerned with their advertisers and their circulation.

An example that comes to mind is Steven Vincent’s posts from Iraq (though tragically, he paid for what he wrote with his life). They had an immediacy not matched by anything I’ve seen in the standard media.

So, while blogs are not some revolutionary phenomenon that will render other media obsolescent, they shouldn’t just be dismissed as overheated chatter. At best they might provide a contribution to the truth not found elsewhere. And who knows – someone might even figure out a way to make money from them sometime. [end Bidsta comment]

Of course, the layers of irony get quite dizzying. The article was all about blogging and how it's just flea-sucking ad infinitum. The article, reliant on those very blogs for its topic, itself became a blog, where it has attracted blog comments. Now here I am, indulgently blogging on the comments on the blog of the comment on the blogs.

I guess while we're examining our navels, civilization might just collapse. Now that would make an interesting post.

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