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The Blogosphere and the Open Society

Recent events in the United States have demonstrated the effectiveness of political blogging on the reporting of the presidential campaigns in the established media. They also provide a useful comparison with the United Kingdom where this relationship between the media and the blogosphere has not been cemented. The difference that blogs have had in the political cultures of both countries lead on to wider questions about the preconditions required for the political bloggers to play such a useful role, as they do in the United States.

There are distinct aspects of the development of the blogosphere in the United States that could not be replicated in the United Kingdom. Both the political culture and the press is far more decentralised and local, allowing new entrants to disseminate information and find new audiences with far lower barriers. The press in the United States was also far more highbrow and expected to maintain high standards of accuracy and objectivity by its readership.

By contrast, the British press has taken a far more visible role in forming and leading public opinion with a greater emphasis upon comment, sometimes likened to a published version of talk radio. Facts and objectivity are not as important in the British press as they are in the United States. It is also a far more centralised concern reflecting the concentrated nature of the British state and the Westminster village. Such a small circle breeds tighter and more incestuous networks of journalists and politicians who maintain control over the flow of information between the political class, the press and the interested public.

The other key difference between the two countries lies in the attitude of the professional towards blogging. One of the most admirable features of the blogosphere in the United States, perhaps the key to its success, lies in the marshalling of professional knowledge towards public ends. This has created a meritorious Republic of Letters. Professionals in the ivory tower, in private sector research or in companies do not police the boundaries of their profession but contribute to an open-source medium, putting their private expertise into the public domain, if they can write or comment authoritatively on a particular matter. As such, it is not possible to make the distinction between the professional classes (if that term can be used) and a wider blogging public.

In the United Kingdom, there is far less professional participation in the blogosphere. Without that participation, it is not possible to marshall the distributed and specialised knowledge necessary to challenge the established publishing and broadcasting media. Why is this so? A smaller country such as the United Kingdom may place a greater status upon joining a profession, providing a cultural barrier towards public and political participation. However, I suspect that the most important precondition is the nature of the paymaster. Most professionals in the United Kingdom are paid for by the state with all of the developments that such funding entails: an aversion to overt political participation, an unwillingness to engage in behaviour that could jeopardise sources of funding or cast a cloud on one’s professional career, and support for further policies that will increase funding from the taxpayer.

It is clear that the developing blogosphere demonstrates that countries with larger governments, a centralised state and a preponderence of public-sector professionals are far less likely to enjoy the benefits of such smart networks. As such, the impact of the blogosphere in a particular country will allow observers to assess how open their society is.

10 comments to The Blogosphere and the Open Society

  • Hank Scorpio

    While I’ll admit that there’s probably something to your theory, Philip, I also think that there’s probably a simpler solution out there; population.

    In order for networks to really acquire critical mass there has to be a fair number of participants, and in that aspect we in the US have obviously got an edge on British blogs just from being able to pull from a larger pool of bloggers/participants. Added to this there’s also the matter of this being an international medium, and so most Brits who are wont to check out blogs are more likely to go to already established/populated blogs, which coincidentally are most often from the US.

    It’s the curse of us stealing the English language from you guys; you’re somewhat lumped into the English speaking, largely American dominated pool. I’m interested to see what things are like in the Spanish speaking blog world, given that there isn’t a Spanish equivalent of the US in that sphere.

  • Guy Herbert

    There’s something else. A significant difference between UK and US media worlds is the effect of British libel law, which means mainstream media will be much more chary of disseminating material derived from informal sources such as blogs. (Incidentally, this also goes some way to explaining the relative importance of factual reporting and opinion in the two countries. Where offering opinion is safer than asserting facts, that’s what people will do; where empty assertion is cheap, the audience wants more factual underpinning as reassurance of reliability.)

  • Philip-
    Part of the vitality of the blogs here probably is a reaction to the fact that our mainstream press is actually (my impression here) more centralized than yours. Most cities support only one newspaper, and so each manages under the pretense that it’s unbiased. Our local television news is fragmented, but usually stays away from politics. Here in Los Angeles, there’s not much time available after the mandatory car chases, weather and sports. National television news has followed on the newspaper tradition, with the pretense of even-handed coverage. Since the bias is decidedly liberal, the conservative/libertarian side of the blogosphere has grown vigorous in opposition.

    Bear in mind that many of the authoritative voices we bring to the fore aren’t themselves bloggers. They’re just people we know. I don’t know why you can’t expect to see the same kind of vitality, eventually. As Hank S. says, sheer size helps. It also helps that we had lots of early entrants with backgrounds in computers or IT. It would be truly unfortunate if professional status were seen as somehow at odds with having an online presence. Come to think of it, the last holdouts on establishing business Websites here have tended to be doctors and lawyers.

  • Give it time. I wouldn’t say I disagree with any of your arguments but my guess is that they are all factors slowing rather than stopping the sort of events we have seen in the US re Rathergate.

    I think it’s significant that Oliver Kamm, who started off as a commenter on Stephen Pollard‘s blog now writes regularly for the Times. (Stephen Pollard was a columnist before he was a blogger, so doesn’t count for the purposes of my argument.)

    The group-blog Harry’s Place has also been quoted by journalist Nick Cohen in the New Statesman as being the source of stuff you don’t see on the regular media.

    Both of the above blogs are left-wing internationalists (though of different sorts) who suppported the Iraq war. In other words they moved into a slot left vacant by mainstream media and politics.

    Peter Briffa wrote for the Times before anyone – but his combination of conservatism and, um, traditional English earthiness is sui generis, and more a case of “talent will out” i.e. a bunch of Times guys laughed their heads off at his stuff.

  • Most professionals in the United Kingdom are paid for by the state with all of the developments that such funding entails

    Seriously, you *what*? Aside from medical doctors, what on earth is the evidence for that bizarre assertion…?

  • If you take a look at the < href="http://www.andrewiandodge.com/">top of my blog I have a quote from a host of a BBC Radio 4 show. And yes I know it would about my blog since he called before it aired and told me so. I have been asked by several journalists I know in the UK to help them understand the blogging phenomena.

    We are being noticed by forward looking journalists and columnists. Although some in the “old media” sneer at bloggers , there are others who find it new and exciting.

  • Nah, you can’t keep a good blogger down. Also, how does your theory explains a thriving Iranian and Polish blogosphere (apparantly two largest ones after the US one…).

    I think one of the reason blogging took off in the US is the talk-radio show. One man and his opinion. Very popular, part of the general culture of freedom of expression. Just like a blog. So when the technology comes that allows anyone to ‘air’ their opinion, they are already following the tradition of talk-radio.

    How’s that for a late night theory? 🙂

  • I recall that in his Screwtape Proposes A Toast, C. S. Lewis’ title character (a literal bureaucrat from Hell) recalls a parable:

    You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no preeminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any tyranny other than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.

    One of the follies of statists is that they underestimate the potential of the individual. Those institutions analagous to farms, such as government schools (the subject of Toast), assume that people are capable of only so much, and are thus designed to meet such minimal expectations. Individuals, when given the freedom to do so, learn and grow and excel in diverse specialties. The Internet allows the tall stalks to bunch together in one place with high visibility – and the people farmers can’t stand it.

  • Adriana,

    I am very loathe to push the comparison beyond the UK precisely because of the complexity of linking blogosphere(s) to their wider social and cultural milieux.

    Personally, I would prefer to see an effective British blogosphere with doughty British bulldog bloggers holding the media to account. For this to happen, developments in the US provide some useful pointers, including the ways that existing areas of knowledge (professions, science and the military) became resources for the blogosphere.

    I would argue that one of the causes of this success is how the blogosphere marshalls and deploys expertise within the network.

    I enjoy the late night theories working against insomnia.

  • Lots of interesting ideas here.

    You’re right to say the UK blogosphere is comparatively small, and apparently ineffectual in the task you’ve set it – holding the media to account. But the situation may change.

    Newsgroups (those usenet bulletin boards our press always refer to as internet chat rooms) were largely Brit-free until companies like Freeserve began offering unlimited internet access. At that point thousands of Brits began infesting every corner of usenet – vulgar, noisy, and opinionated.

    Patience. There will be a UK blogosphere, but it may take a couple of years.

    Meanwhile, my own plight is running a blog that claims to be part of a European blogosphere. No such thing, of course, and maybe never will be.