We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Gone to the blogs

Last night was a speaker at a blogging seminar in London at the IBM building, organised by Sp!ked called Gone to the blogs: The blogging phenomenon in perspective. The other speakers were Brendan O’Neill, James Crabtree and Bill Thompson.

The introduction to the seminar asked:

Enormous claims are made for weblogs, or ‘blogs’ – online publications in diary format, where individuals publish comment and links to other online content. In media and technology circles, it is often claimed that blogs are revolutionising journalism and enhancing democracy. Meanwhile, others complain that blogs are dangerously unaccountable, and that blogs are clogging up Google’s search engine results with insubstantial material, because an incestuous coterie of bloggers all link to one another.

Are blogs revolutionising journalism, or have people in the traditional media lost faith in their own authority, leading them to talk blogs up? Do blogs enhance democracy, or do they make a virtue of narcissism and navel-gazing? Does a dangerous clique of bloggers wield unaccountable power, or are these bloggers simply exercising their right to free speech on an exciting new platform?

The interesting thing to me was that there was really very little agreement as to what blogging was ‘all about’, either amongst the speakers or from the floor. One recurrent theme was endless blather about blogs being ‘good for democracy’ without really saying why that might be the case.

Paleo-socialist Bill Thompson of the BBC, about whom we have written on Samizdata.net before claimed to now like blogging and regarded the fact virulently anti-socialist folks like Samizdata.net also blog as ‘an acceptable cost’. He also egregiously mis-characterised Brendan O’Neill’s rather temperate remarks on the topic of Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger. Whilst a reporter mis-representing a person’s remarks is hardly news, for him to do so when the person in question is sitting a few yards away and is able to point out that is not in fact what they said is… interesting.

Below is the text of my opening remarks:

The intro to this seminar asks on one hand: is blogging revolutionising journalism and enhancing democracy? On the other hand, it is asked, are blogs dangerously unaccountable and are some bloggers wielding unaccountable power?

From the phrasing of the question, we are presumed to feel the first two of these things would be axiomatically ‘good’ if true and the later two axiomatically ‘bad’.

Well, I would answer that blogs are evolution–izing journalism, not revolutionising it: Brendan O’Neill is no less of a journalist for being a blogger and neither is Stephen Pollard, who also blogs. The dead tree publications for which they write are neither harmed nor helped overall… blogs push a great deal of traffic towards their websites, but are in direct competition with the part of a newspaper or broadcaster which editorialises. However blogs do not have reporters in Afghanistan or Liberia: blogs are mostly about punditry rather than reporting. So a journalist’s ability to write an article for a newspaper is much as it was, but his ability to act as a credible independent ‘commentator’ is enhanced by his blog articles, many of which might be overly opinionated for a newspaper editor mindful of his shareholders or ministerial chums…

And far from blogs ‘enhancing democracy’, which is just another way of saying enhancing ‘politics’, blogs are giving people a social alternative to political interaction. Certainly my personal little section of the blogosphere (which is the term for the community of blogs) is dedicated to throwing spanners rather than oil into the political machinery of state. Democracy is just politics and politics, and like the established media which panders to it, it is a crude tool for representing the reality of any society it claims to ‘serve’… well, they serve it in the farming sense of the word I suppose.

And yes… bloggers are unaccountable… its not a bug, its a feature… unaccountable to the extent that you, the reader, do not get a vote on what a blogger writes, and unlike a newspaper or broadcaster, it is much harder for the establishment, be it the forces of crony ‘capitalism’, organised labour or the state itself, to twist a bloggers arm to get them to stay on message: there are simply too many bloggers to regulate effectively. If pseudonymous Iraqi blogger Salam Pax can blog under the nose of Ba’athist Socialism, I suspect blogs will be able to annoy New Labour or Microsoft… we are the Samizdats of the future.

As for us bloggers being dangerous, well, I think our influence is far less at this stage than some have been claiming, so I don’t think we are all too dangerous yet… but it is certainly my hope that we will be very dangerous indeed one day.

And who do I hope we will be dangerous to? To the state’s lying spin machine, to the established media’s ability to editorialise unchallenged, particularly the tax funded bits of it, and all who underpin the simplistic left-right axioms within which so much public dialogue is framed…and also I hope blogs will be dangerous to businesses whose P.R. is an obstacle rather than an asset to the marketplace. In short, I hope we are dangerous to those who have a vested interest in ‘business-as-usual’ both politically and commercially.

Are bloggers biased? Of course they are! But then does anyone really think the Telegraph or Guardian or BBC or CNN or the Daily Mail or the New York Times do not work within profoundly ideological meta-contexts as well? But the blogosphere is like a vast interlinked rolling peer review (which is of course precisely why some people hate it). Rather than just having to pass muster with a handful of editors vetting what gets written, the blogosphere is a true open stall market place of ideas in which the currency is called ‘eyeballs’ rather than Pounds or Dollars. Write what you like, but if what you write is unsubstantiated or poorly reasoned crap… you will get ripped to shreds and people will just stop reading you.

But blogging is not just about one-man bands standing on a virtual soap box on a virtual speaker’s corner. Companies and institutions are starting to understand that blogging and the blogosphere can work for any group of people who are articulate and who genuinely want to be heard above the dissembling information pollution that passes for ‘P.R.’ or Spin.

Just this week, the world renowned Adam Smith Institute. started a blog in order to editorialise on the issues of the day… also a major high tech multinational has asked the company in which I am a partner to examine how blogging would help them present credible views to their clients… I think eventually the era of ‘press releases’ at least as they are currently done, will gradually draw to a close as blogging starts to fulfil that role… but with the happy difference that any PR bullshit will get the harsh light of the blogosphere shone on it.

Blogs mean saying what you need to say without intermediating cumbersome and distorting media machines, and doing it in a way that is resistant to conformist political pressures.

Blogs are heralding the end of ‘business as usual’.

And I certainly think that is true.

15 comments to Gone to the blogs

  • Dave

    Blogs are heralding the end of ‘business as usual’.

    I’m still not convinced by this at all. I heard similar comments about Usenews a decade ago.

    Can you really see most people actually turning to Blogs for reporting and information? Do you see them as resulting in the death of the broadcast media and print media?

    Without that, they’ll almost certainly remain a pervue of the minority.

  • Dave F

    “Blogs do not have reporters in Afghanistan or Liberia”.

    The fact is that the blogosphere has reporters here, there and everywhere, and Salam Pax is a very prominent example. He and many others have helped blog aficionados get a less predigested insight into places, issues, and events.

    As a journalist, I regard blogs as a vital resource, even though there is an awful lot of crap. There are personal and expert perspectives available (absolutely free) that would otherwise only be obtainable with great labour and difficulty.

  • Johnathan

    I see blogs performing the same role as that of talk radio in the US – offering a channel for opinions otherwise suppressed elswhere. Hence the often pronounced libertarian/conservative tone of many blogs, as well as other views.

    As for the impact on the media, well, I think blogs may eventually force some media outlets to focus on what they do best – original reporting, while individual journalists who want to vent their views will do so via the blog format.

    This is probably good news for the old newswires like AP Dow, Reuters, UPI, etc.

  • Do you see them as resulting in the death of the broadcast media and print media?

    No… and that makes no difference to my views at all. The blog competes with the editorial section of establish media, it does not compete with reporting. As I actually said that in my article and at no time said blogging will replace broadcast media and print media, I wonder why you ascribe such views to me?

  • Dave O'Neill

    I wonder why you ascribe such views to me

    Sorry, that seemed to be the general direction – again, my apologies for misreading.

    I remain unconvinced even with replacing the traditional editorial, assuming that the existing media remains the main channel. Of course, over a significant period of time there could be some changes in this but I’m not convinced yet.

  • Charles Copeland

    Schon eure zahl ist frevel” – your very number is a crime, as the German poet Stefan George put it a few decades ago. Or, rather, our very number is a crime.

    So many legions of articulate, clever people eager to spout their views to the world at large. So few views by comparison with the total number of such legions.

    Blogland, alas, is yet another instantiation of Lotka’s law. Roughly: Lotka’s law states that the total number of relevant comments on a given topic is approximately equivalent to the square root of all comments on that topic. For example, if there are 100 blog documents on the Iraq war, you will problably benefit from reading just ten of them. But if there are a thousand such documents, you’ll probably learn something new from a mere 33 of them. The problem, of course, is sorting the 33 pieces of wheat from the 967 pieces of redundant chaff.

    Which is why people still read periodicals and books — there’s somebody there who sorts out most of the rubbish for you. They’re called editors or slush pile readers. They deserve their wages.

    Still, pontificating is great fun…. even if nobody reads your postings apart from yourself. Blogland truly opens up new horizons for cost-free vanity publishing.

    Blogland, Blogland ueber alles!

  • Guy Herbert

    As someone who has read slush piles from time to time, I’d say that a square-root-rule like that (which would be closer to Bradford’s law than Lotka’s) is way too optimistic for a sample as small as a thousand. Maybe the square-root does apply to conventionally published and hence pre-filtered material.

    There must be big numbers of truly dreadful blogs out there.

  • Charles Copeland

    Guy Herbert is probably correct – perhaps the version of Lotka’s law that applies to redundancy in Blogland should run something like this:

    The number of non-redundant blog texts is equivalent to the cube root of the total number of blog texts.

    Or perhaps it’s the quadratic root function that kicks in ….

  • Dave wrote: I’m still not convinced by this at all. I heard similar comments about Usenews a decade ago.

    A lot of people did have high hopes for Usenet but the nature of the system was what led to its gradual decline, not a lack of decent reporting and information and useful, interesting contributions by good writers. Usenet’s demise was the unregulated nature of the system, which allowed many newsgroups to become ineffective or simply unreadable under the deluge of spam. The same problem does not afflict blogs, which offer an inherently controlled and supervised environment – many blogs do not even allow readers to leave comments so there’s little chance of the blog being hijacked by spammers and ultimately bloggers don’t rely on a network like Usenet so if certain commenters do try to spoil the blog it’s easier to restrict their ability to cause perpetual annoyance.

    Usenet also peaked at a time when the Internet was used predominantly by those interested in the technology – the audience was dismal and the range of topics was somewhat limited in comparison with today, when people from around the world – many more interested in politics than technology – have easy access to the Internet. Usenet remained relatively unpopular when more users were attracted to the Internet in the late 90s – probably because it’s not as easy and straightforward to access as a website, which is where blogs have yet another advantage over newsgroups: Anyone with access to the web can read blogs – and leave comments on those blogs which offer that option. Blogs are emerging around the heart of the Internet. Blogging is simply easier to get into than Usenet – where on earth does one start if one wants to create a Usenet newsgroup? What if someone wants to give blogging a go..? – Simply visit blogspot.com and you could be blogging in minutes.

    I think blogging has a hell of a lot going for it and I advise against using comparisons with Usenet and its unfortunate fate to predict the demise of this exciting new medium.

  • Dave O'Neill

    The same problem does not afflict blogs, which offer an inherently controlled and supervised environment – many blogs do not even allow readers to leave comments so there’s little chance of the blog being hijacked by spammers and ultimately bloggers don’t rely on a network like Usenet so if certain commenters do try to spoil the blog it’s easier to restrict their ability to cause perpetual annoyance.

    This is an improvement on Usenews, but moderated Newsgroups soon came into existance which dealt with the spammers etc…

    Blogging is an improvement but, like anything in this field you risk a massive selection effect.

    Many people don’t read Blogs and aren’t interested, yet they’ll read a newspaper or watch TV. I don’t see how Blogs can get around the mass market issues of requiring an “active” rather than passive audience.

    I may be wrong on this but while I enjoy reading ahuge variety of Blogs, I also enjoy reading a number of Usenews Groups. Of my circle of friends, many of whom are pretty technically savy, probably only 5% actually read many Blogs.

    None of us have one at this stage, although that might change in the near future.

  • This is an improvement on Usenews, but moderated Newsgroups soon came into existance which dealt with the spammers etc

    That sounds dreadfully like an editor, doesn’t it; there goes the independence!

  • Doug Collins

    The foregoing comments seem to be saying that Blogs will never be an activity engaged in by a majority of the population like, say, viewing the final episode of a popular reality TV show.

    Is this necessarily a disadvantage? The Committees of Correspondance in the pre-Revolutionary War American colonies were undoubtedly a minority of the population. So were the people who published newspapers in 18th and 19th century Europe and America (at a time when there was both a relatively low cost of entry to publishing and a low level of literacy). Perhaps the significance of Blogs is the low cost of entry to those with something to say – or at least a belief that they have something to say- and hitherto no way to say it.

    Such people may have always been a minority. Yet they have been historically very effective. If their ideas have “legs” they can travel beyond a small audience and into the general culture.

    I was recently somewhat shocked to find that parts of some comments that I made months ago have turned up elsewhere. Try doing a search on your name and a subject or two that you have commented on in the past. If nothing else, it will make you think through your argument more carefully in the future. Or else use an alias.

  • Dave O’Neill wrote: This is an improvement on Usenews, but moderated Newsgroups soon came into existance which dealt with the spammers etc…

    I think equally important as the lack of spam and the huge potential for serious debate at popular, widely-read blogs like Samizdata is how accessible blogging is as a medium, which is something I touched on in my earlier comment. Moderated newsgroups are very useful but people need accounts and passwords and specialist newsreader software whereas blogs are part of the ‘WWW’ – you can read a blog from pretty much any Internet-connected terminal designed for looking at webpages and no ‘tech’ knowledge is required – just an understanding of web-browsing.

    You’re right that blogs have very limited audiences when compared with television news programmes and newspapers and in the passive/active sense I do not envisage blogs being able to rival popular television programmes but blogs shouldn’t necessarily be compared with a medium like television – a lot of the appeal of television probably lies in its ‘passive’ nature – I don’t think blogs can or should even try to necessarily compete in the ‘passive’ market – it doesn’t seem to be their nature but I don’t see this as a huge problem for the growth of the blogosphere. Blogs are, in my mind at least, the future leader in the ‘active’ market, Blogs like Samizdata appeal to a specific market and just as many people will never read a newspaper, many people will never read a blog – but I don’t think that matters – I don’t think the influence of blogs is necessarily dependent on the eyeball statistics because whilst more readers often means more power inside the blogosphere I’m not so sure audience size and the influence of a blog in the ‘real world’ are so closely related.

    The blogosphere is still young. We shall have to wait and see.

  • S. Weasel

    Oh, I still think Usenet has a generally the more informed and articulate usership. Maybe I have a heavily filtered feed, but I seldom see spam. Roving bands of annoying trolls, yes…but I’d far rather learn to use a killfile than post under a heavy-handed moderatorocracy.

    What makes Usenet less usable for me is the sheer volume of posts in the most interesting groups. I despair of keeping up with it.

    Blogs get so much buzz, I think, because traditional print journalists love the idea of opining without an editor and have gotten into the blogging game, then back-cite blogs in their print pieces. It’s an echo chamber effect.

    I suspect blogs will be to the oughts what stand up comics were to the nineties – everybody’s doing it and a few will parlay it into a career, but most will drop out over time.

    They are neither more nor less useful than other internet sources of information, and it’s probably best to look at them all together to judge the impact the net has on society.

  • Phil_Bradley

    Perry: To dispense with the blogs clogging up Google argument. Firstly, I am a frequent and long-time Google user and rarely get hits on blogs. Google is just a tool. Learn how to use it! Secondly Google is a commercial product. It needs to operate in the real world. If it doesn’t operate satisfactorily, then the answer is not to fix the real world. It is to fix the product before someone else produces a product that does fix the problem.

    Welcome to free markets!

    I suspect that a few years down the road that your view that blogs threaten the editorial sections of established media and not the news section, will turn out to be partly wrong. As evidence during the SARS crisis I was an avid reader of blogs from China to find out what was really happening.

    I don’t read many crappy blogs, because if I think a blog’s content is not worth my time I don’t go back. It just costs me 30 seconds of my time to find out.

    Finally, I read blogs for two reasons. The first is they are focused on topics I am interested in and they filtered out the x column inches that journos put in as a filler. With the added bonus the writers are often far better informed than professional journos. The second is I am tired of the bland PC non-opinions peddled in most of the mainstream media. I’m an ideas person. Give me ideas! I’ll figure out whether I agree with them or not.