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

Democracy and the blogosphere? No big deal

Last night I attended this event, about Blogs, Democracy, etc.

The atmosphere radiating from the panel of speakers was odd. They all had in common that they were concerned above all not to get too enthusiastic about blogging. One sensed that both the dot.com boom and the current enthusiasm for blogging that radiates from sad little blogging enthusiasts like me had affected them far too deeply for their own good. To me they sounded like people saying in, say, 1550, that all this hype about the impact that printing was destined to have was all rather overdone. Stephen Pollard told us that he did not really care about blogging in general, but then did manage to string a few more sentences together to suggest that he did at least concede that blogging had its uses. You know, fact checking the newspapers, enabling Stephen Pollard to say things that the newspapers would not allow him to say in the newspapers, little things like that.

Sandy Starr, a junior mainstream media person, and a senior website wonk if ever there was one, told us that he is determined not to let the unreality of blogging distract him from the reality of writing proper newspaper articles. He sounded to me like a man who had spent the first decade of his working life communicating entirely with carefully composed telegrams, and then reacting to ? and against ? the newly invented telephone. This is a machine for mere chit-chatting. It is of no importance. It is not real. However, Starr did at least register one extremely important effect of blogging, which is that it blurs the distinction between the public and the private. He described this major impact of blogging by announcing that he was not going to allow his life to get blurred in this way, but he did at least describe it. When he works he works, when he plays he plays, and never the twain shall meet. etc..

William Heath talked about his own efforts as a blogger. He had the audience grinding its collective teeth by talking about e-government as if it was an indisputably good thing, unaware, apparently, that he was addressing a congregation assembled by a Think Tank that thinks that only small e-government is good e-government. As for the “ideal government” (the title of Heath’s blog), that would be ? no government at all. So, there was very little raport there, except perhaps with the mainstream journalists present. However, Heath did flag up the fact that blogging can have many different uses and be used in many different ways. His recent blogging activity, for instance, was a strictly temporary affair. Who says you have to post something up every day, for ever? Why can you not have a big, concentrated, intense buzz of conversation, and then, when you have all said your various things, go quiet until the next big buzz? Why not indeed?

And finally, our own Perry de Havilland had the floor, and he too made it his business above all not to be too excited about it all. Blogs compete with mainstream media editors, rather than with reporters, he said.

As for the democracy thing, Pollard thought blogs would fact check campaign statements. Starr may have said something about democracy, but since his general message seemed to be that blogging is no big deal, it presumably followed that its impact upon democracy would likewise be of no great consequence. My mind wandered at this point, I fear. Heath enthused (he was the most enthusiastic speaker) about e-government, in the sense that filling in government forms on-line would be made easier and more consistent (with all the other damn forms you also have to fill in). Joined-up government, in other words. (The audience sat their thinking that it would prefer its government not to be join-up thank you very much.) He made no mention, as I thought he might, of the idea of the Internet, blogs etc., being used to have instant elections, referenda, etc., to decide about Big Issues. Thank God. Instead he mentioned the way that the government, when faced with an actual expression of a strongly held opinion that it had not been soliciting, against ID cards, decided that this strongly held opinion did not count, because ? well, because it did not, so there. It was political, ergo however many thousands of emails it actually consisted of was only counted as one. Which makes the point that the last thing any government wants to do is let the mob decide everything. e-lectronically or o-therwise.

And Perry de Havilland reprised his blogs are not democratic speech, familiar from several postings here. They are private property and the owner sets the rules, not voters. If you do not like it, do not read it. Blogs are social, not political. Samizdata is a political blog that is anti-political.

The first question from the floor, which must have contained about fifty people, almost entirely men of various ages, concerned censorship. Apparently he (the first questioner) had had some abusive screed that he had attached to Stephen Pollard’s blog about half a century ago deleted. The panel collectively shrugged its shoulders. Blogs are private property. A blogger has an absolute right to delete comments at will. It may not be wise to delete this or that comment, but he is entitled. If you do not like that, start your own blog.

Why the downbeat atmosphere? Philip Chaston commented from the floor, reprising this posting. The big British newspapers, unlike the ones in the USA, are already quite biased and lively enough already, and do not need blogging to liven them up, unlike in the USA where the Mainstream Media are pompous secret-left pseudo-extreme-centre prats, ripe for the blogging. Ergo, blogging here is no big deal.

Only two commenters that I recall expressed any great excitement about blogging’s impacts and possibilities.

Jackie Danicki talked with girlish enthusiasm (what with her being one of the very few girls present ? another commenter from the floor got the biggest laugh of the night by saying that he had come to this thing partly to meet girls ? some hope) about how blogging had introduced her to her good friend Norman Geras and his family, which would not have happened otherwise! This, she said, was a big deal!

And who was the other enthusiastic commenter? Oh yes, me. (As you can see, the Samizdatistas were present in remarkable strength to support the Dear Leader. Even the chairman of the event, the ASI‘s Alex Singleton, was one of us.) After some preliminary dissent from Perry’s point about bloggers not competing with mainstream reporters, I did a speech saying that the Internet ? and therefore blogging (because blogging is the user-friendly front-end of the Internet ? it is for me anyway) is destined (also big deal) to change the entire course of human history.

And then it was thank you thank you, clap clap for our panel please, champagne champagne, chat chat, pizza pizza, and off home.

UPDATE: The first questioner’s comment at Stephen Pollard’s blog was not deleted! When SP got home last night, he checked! It was still there! SP stomps all over the poor man most entertainingly. But, as SP himself says, several times and in several ways, that really is no big deal.

UPDATE 2 (apologies for all the multiple trackbacks): Alex Singleton also reports, with a picture of lots of men.

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17 comments to Democracy and the blogosphere? No big deal

  • Diplodocus

    Blogging is more an extension of Speakers’ Corner or private publishing than an event comparable with the invention of movable type.

    After the first intoxication of seeing your words on a screen, just like the BBC’s, I suspect a lot of people (particularly those engaged in a minority recreation such as politics) have experienced a hangover. The traffic really is very small, and there is a limit to the number of times one can see the same few people posting variations on the same few attitudes to the same few subjects without ennui setting in.

    Moreover, the appearance of tolerance and a free-for-all between strangers the world over soon fades, as we can see here with the assertion of a doctrine of private property which permits the suppression of unwelcome opinions. Not that Samizdata is worse than most in that respect– just more pretentious in its censoriousness.

    Perhaps when the hangover in turn has worn off, a more constructive and realistic place for blogging in the noosphere will be found. But the citadels of the mainstream media are not going to fall to a few blasts of the Internet trumpet. Au contraire, the Daily Telegraph and Grauniad are probably reaching wider audiences with the help of their websites than when they were just papers.

  • gast

    Blogging is more an extension of Speakers’ Corner or private publishing than an event comparable with the invention of movable type.

    Not so. Television is more an extension of Speakers’ Corner, with an assembled crowd listening to what goes on… blogging, or “Internet version 2.0” as I prefer to call it, is more like a rolling networked social exchange in which different speakers are critiquing each other in increasingly large numbers.

    I strongly suspect the mainstream is already in the process of being redefined as channels fragment and mass media looses some of its voice to niche media… blogs are just the latest (and most interesting) manifestation of a process that is already well underway.

    Far from over-hyping it, I think blogging is vastly underestimated, even by the people that do it.

  • Euan Gray

    No, I think Diplodocus has it right.

    TV is nothing like Speaker’s Corner. The agenda is set and controlled by others, there are a limited number of differing viewpoints, and there are overarching rules of taste and decency applied. Relatively few points of view get expressed.

    Blogging, OTOH, gives anyone who wants to the ability to stand up and say his piece, however silly it may be. There is little effective censorship over the internet, so many people say, in effect, many things – some sensible, some insane. But even then, it’s not blogging that does this – it is the wide availability of the internet and the spread of the personal computer. You don’t need to blog to make your point, and people managed perfectly well on the net for years before blogging started.

    Blogging is seriously over-hyped. Read any advocacy of it, filter out the marketing-speak and fashionable if meaningless management phrases, and what’s left? Not that much. I think it will calm down once people realise it doesn’t actually amount to much more than electronic vanity publishing.

    EG

  • Math Jester

    Like so much of what Euan Gray writes, he is wrong, wrong, wrong. Blogging really is a revolution and his remarks will come back to haunt him in 5 years when the whole web is largely blog-like and the networks formed bring a whole new dynamic to the way people get information and above all, derive credibility. Euan probably does not like the “marketing-speak and fashionable if meaningless management phrases” because he does not understand many of them.

    As someone up to his eyeballs in network theory and the hilariously misnamed complexity theory (which is actually about simplicity), it is amusing to see how the agents cannot see the patterns they form.

  • Jacob

    “Blogging really is a revolution….”

    Yes, it is.

    I also disagree with Perry that bloggers don’t replace reporters. They do. Take for instance your own Dale Amon who reported live from the launch of the suborbital Xprize flight.

    It’s the network effect that makes blogs so remarkable and revolutionary. No single blogger can compete with thousands of media reporters, but there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers, each with specialized knowledge and comments on his corner of the woods. Taken together you get from the blogs an amazing amount of info and profound, specialized commentary on all topics, far beyond what the MSM reporters are able to supply, as their number, and expertize (to say nothing of their mental capabilities) are limited.

    There are space blogs, law blogs, econo-blogs, India blogs, Iraq blogs, geek blogs, medicine blogs, pornblogs, military blogs … you name it… ah, and politic blogs too, I forgot.

    Then there begins a fuzzy area where blogs and on line media merge: NRO, TNR, Hit&Run, etc. Then there is online media that looks like blogs: Debka, Drudge …

    There is no doubt in my mind that on-line, as a means of delivery of news and opinion, is going to supplant the on dead tree media, and all media will necessarily have to publish on-line to survive, as they are already doing, all of them.

    So blogs are part, an important and huge part, of the infinite flow of information available instantly on line.

  • Rob

    Blogging really isn’t all that revolutionary.

    It’s nothing people weren’t doing 10 years ago with personal websites, nothing software developers haven’t been doing for years with .plan files. It’s just easier to do now, and there’s a wider audience. Blogging does seem to have revitalised the “Do It Yourself” mentality that existed on the net 10 or so years ago, but it certainly didn’t create it.

    I don’t think the purpose of blogs is to compete with mainstream media, especially newspapers. Exchanging one set of opinionated articles for another is not particularly exciting to me. Where blogs succeed is in providing the specialised content that the newspapers simply can’t provide – discussions of rather arcane political issues are a good example, but there are plenty more of them.

    Where blogs fail is when they start to get sucked in by their own hubris. Quality writing depends on a certain degree of effort by the author; merely having a blog does not constitute having something interesting to say. Too often, good blogs end up diluting their content, mistaking “news story link plus personal spin” for “media analysis” once they have achieved a decent audience.

    Blogs are best when they give a unique, individual perspective, from someone who is better-informed than the majority on a particular subject area. Combined with the direct publishing approach, without intermediaries, editors, censors or PR officers, this can provide us with genuinely new knowledge for a fraction of the old cost, bringing specialist views to the attention of a wider audience. Blogs are worst when they are nothing more than “my opinions on what everyone else is saying!”. If I wanted a bunch of daft opinions on news stories, I’d sit and get stoned with some friends.

  • Euan Gray

    Euan probably does not like the “marketing-speak and fashionable if meaningless management phrases” because he does not understand many of them.

    Unlike, he suspects, many commenters here, Euan actually works in manufacturing industry and has to put up with this sort of meaningless drivel on a more or less weekly basis.

    He has experienced the joys of Total Quality Management, Incident and Injury Free, Advanced Safety Auditing, the Quality Initiative and so on. He has stakeholders coming out of his ears and recalls how BS5750 was going to save us all from European competition. He has seen people being proactive, watched them reach out, and failed to get the warm fuzzy feeling. Networks have been enabled, the shop floor has been partnershipped, and you know what?

    The same old shit just keeps on happening. We still make the same old products, we still develop new ones with new materials and processes, we still sell as expensively as we can in a good old traditional way to clients who want to buy as cheaply as they can. We still pay the workers as little as we can, they still demand as much as they think they can get away with. We still think we’re screwing suppliers into the ground, and they still think they’re taking us for all we’ve got.

    And, amazingly enough, our competitors still do the same things. Shocking, eh? I mean, surely you’d think someone would buy all these wonderful new concepts, would partnership with the non-salaried stakeholders in a meaningfully proactive way so we can all enable the conversations of our networked future potentialities, wouldn’t you?

    Crap is crap, whatever you call it. Business is about buying as low as you can and selling as high as you can. It always was, and it always will be. Blogs, internet, newspapers, conversations and partnerships notwithstanding, that’s what commercial reality is all about.

    An earth inverting horticultural hand implement is still a spade.

    his remarks will come back to haunt him in 5 years

    Well, I’m willing to be hard cash on it now if you are, matey.

    EG

  • Jacob

    I forgot the commenters. Each blog is enhanced by a flock of commenters and e-mailers.

    It is a revolution, or at least – an important evolution.

    Long ago there were newspapers, as sole distributors of news and commentary.
    Then, radio was added. Next – TV.
    Now the blogosphere. But the blogosphere is huge, physically unlimited.

  • Euan Gray

    Sorry, that should be “bet hard cash”. I have no particular desire to actually be cash.

    EG

  • I don’t think any of us here whether habitual commenter or blogger has any idea how blogs will evolve in the future. Blogs usefulness very much depends on how one looks at it, and can be very varied.

    Blogs have been useful at making people aware of events they might not hear about in the mainstream media either because of a media outlet’s prejudices or because of their time constraints. Granted there have been “mountain out of mole-hill events” highlighted by some bloggers. But this is bound to happen and how often is the MSM media guilty of the same thing.

    Blogs are useful for a free exchange of ideas and images between people with a shared interest…over vast distances. Surely this is not a bad thing?

    As I have said before: blogs are what we make of them. It is as simple as that.

  • Diplodocus

    Gast: “Television is more an extension of Speakers’ Corner”

    Hmm. Every time I heckle a talking head on the telly, he ignores me.

    Of course, increasingly bloggers also do so by not allowing Comments. If you’re as far above the rest of the human race as Oliver Kamm, you really can’t put up with the groundlings interrupting you when you’re talking to yourself. Other blogs just fear libel will slip in.

    A lot of the starry-eyed talk about how the blogosphere is going to shake up the media reminds me of the “newspaper revolution” of the mid-1980s, led by Eddy Shah, which was means to create a forest of papers hand-tailored to the interests of particular communities. It turned out most of us just wanted to go on looking at the tits in The Sun. Ditto cable TV, which was supposed to bring forth dozens of special-interest channels like specialised periodicals but has ended up largely regurgitating repeats, in the paws of Rupert Murdoch and the Beeb.

    Technology changes very little in itself. It needs reservoirs of talent, determination and individuality which bloggers have not begun to show.

  • sark

    Technology changes very little in itself. It needs reservoirs of talent, determination and individuality which bloggers have not begun to show.

    Technology changes very little in itself? That has to be one of the most wrongheaded remarks I have read in quite a while. As for determination and individuality, I would offer up this blog as an example… the “management” can correct me but looking at the archives I estimate there are 5 or 6 thousand articles on this site, which suggest they are pretty damn determined to get their messages out, and clearly these guys are very much doing their own thing, so I see individuality aplenty.

  • John Ellis

    Euan,

    Nice one. I have complete sympathy for your rant on Corporate-Speak (let alone the Dark Ones of Marketing), and I share your suspicion of bloggers stroking themselves into a paroxism of self-importance.

    However, it is fun, here, isn’t it? 😉

  • Jacob

    Euan,
    “marketing-speak and fashionable if meaningless management phrases”

    I know what you mean. You’re in engineering or some such, aren’t you? That’s how engineers think.

    A sad fact of life is that people who specialize in “marketing-speak and fashionable if meaningless management phrases” earn much more than I do.

  • John Ellis

    That’s because fast-talking snake oil salesmen are highly valued in our society…just look at the politicians…

  • Which goes to show, I need to develop my thinking on these points.

  • Cooper

    I was another “enthusiastic” commenter – as I said, I think the speakers at the event dramatically understated the impact of technology such as blogs.

    The spiked online guy tried to convince me over the champagne that there was nothing different between a “telephone tree” and new forms of social software such as blogs or other such stuff. Whilst his exegesis that technology is over-played as a driver of change has some merit, I remain convinced of its importance in driving progress.

    It would have been nice to have had one speaker who was a little more bullish on the subject I thought…. However, it is well known that people overestimate the short term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term impact – the so called “hype curve”

    Anyway thanks to the speakers and ASI for a most enjoyable event.

    James