Monday, April 05, 2004

We Will Blog You
A while ago, in a fit of enthusiasm, Murray and I wrote a short article about blogging which we'd hoped to get published in one of the Oxford student newspapers. Evidently, the standards required by OxStu or Cherwell were higher than what we could muster because we were turned down and the article never saw the light of day. I'm posting it here in response to some comments made after my bit about the left-right bias of the blogosphere...

Over the past two years, a quiet revolution has been underway in the media world. In the nature of such upheavals the initial indicators have been misread by the pundits and, unless you're attuned to its outward manifestations, you might not be aware that it's happening at all. Nevertheless, it's real, and it's changing the way that people relate to the media. The revolution goes by the name of "blogging" and, if you're not yet familiar with this term, then mark these words well, because you soon will be.

As with many recent revolutions (think of Amazon, Napster and e-mail) blogging is a child of the internet and the endless possibilities that it makes available. In the case of blogging, the internet allows individuals to become their own one-man (blogging tends to be a solitary activity) media houses. For most "bloggers", the only costs involved are the opportunity costs of their time and this has meant that, over the last few years, the number of people blogging has exploded. The total number of blogs is now upward of half a million and growing exponentially. So, what exactly are blogs and why do they matter?

Answering this question in a way that doesn't elicit blank stares is, admittedly, difficult. The word "blog" is an abbreviation of the phrase "web-log", which ought to tell you something about the nature of blogging. It is, put bluntly, a form of diary writing or punditry, usually available in the public domain. Hardly the stuff or revolutions, you might say. Yet there is much more to it than just that. In the words of the Far Eastern Economic Review, "web-logs ... are the creation of individuals, usually musings on national, local or personal events, links to interesting articles, a few lines of comment or discussion collected and presented by one person. Web-logs are a milestone in the short history of the Internet."

Still not convinced? Then consider the blogger who has perhaps done more to bring the phenomenon to the public's attention than any other. In September 2002, a 29-year old Iraqi, calling himself Salam Pax, started blogging from Baghdad. In short order his daily postings on life in Iraq leading up to, and during, Gulf War II were drawing in thousands of daily visitors. Salam offered an account of the war that was personal and yet managed to cut through much of the propaganda - a CNN correspondent crossed with Anne Frank, if you will. Now consider that the best known bloggers, such as Andrew Sullivan and Glen Reynolds in the United States, regularly attract 60 000 hits a day. That puts their readership ahead of many newspapers, not to mention various news magazines for whom a readership of that size is nothing but a hazy dream. It's worth pointing out too that the mainstream media has now begun to take blogging seriously as witnessed by the recent launch of the Guardian's Political Weblog Awards.

What accounts for this phenomenon? Part of it is that, provided you have internet access, blogs are free and require relatively little technical expertise to set up and maintain. Secondly, the best bloggers are either journalists by trade, are intending to become journalists, or possess sufficient talent as writers to be journalists if they so desired. Thus, if you wish that your favourite columnist wrote more often, or didn't write for a range of different newspapers, then blogging is something of a god-send. Every day brings reams of interesting and insightful commentary and analysis without the hassle of having to buy several newspapers. And, because bloggers don't have to toe the editorial line, or fear the wrath of owners or advertisers, they can really say whatever they want (although the day that a blogger gets sued for libel can't be too far off).

Indeed, much of the appeal of blogging is that, because of its unconstrained nature, it operates, in the words of British blogger Harry Hatchet, as a haven for "opinions that are marginalised in established media. While blogs may be edging into mainstream discourse, they thrive on being outside of it." If you want to know what the Labour back bench really thinks, well, several of them are blogging. If you're tired of the propaganda about Iraq, there are a number of blogs by soldiers, Iraqis and newsmen doing an excellent job of covering that benighted country. If you're in search of fellow libertarians or recovering Marxists, well then the "blogosphere" is the place for you.

Of course, blogging wouldn't be a true child of the internet if part of its appeal wasn't speed. Blogging allows for almost instantaneous reaction to breaking news and minute by minute, sometimes second by second, analysis of events. Recently, a number of blogs offered real-time analysis of George Bush's state of the nation address. As he spoke, they wrote. By the time he'd finished, the blogosphere was alive with discussion as people debated and offered links to blogs that had made interesting points. By the time the "dead tree media" (newspapers to most) had been compiled, printed and distributed the following day, Bush's address was old news and the papers weren't able to offer or say anything that hadn't been done by a blogger already.

Finally, if politics isn't your thing, and you just like reading about other peoples' lives, there are tens of thousands of small, introspective blogs chronicling the trials and tribulations of people all over the world. Most are rubbish but a few are excellent, filled with eccentricity, rage, humour and pathos.

Having said all of this, its still too early to assess the real impact of blogging. At its best, it's empowering, refreshing and innovative. At its worst, it's solipsistic, consumed with in-jokes and petty rivalries and prone to thinking of itself as more important than it is. But let's be optimistic and assume that the good blogs will succeed in creating a market for a new kind of media, a media that is endlessly reinventing itself and that is quick to respond to the needs of the general public.

In the words of Andrew Sullivan: "It's somewhere in between writing a column and talk radio. It's genuinely new. And it harnesses the web's real genius - its ability to empower anyone to do what only a few in the past could genuinely pull off. In that sense, blogging is the first journalistic model that actually harnesses rather than merely exploits the true democratic nature of the web. It's a new medium finally finding a unique voice. Stay tuned as that voice gets louder and louder."

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