June 28, 2004

In defence of Blogging

(cross posted at Simon World)

Mac Diva from the blog Mac-a-ronies has posted a half-hearted endorsement of the Showcase at Blogcritics.org. It is an interesting article that demands a response.

Firstly let me clarify a misunderstanding. The Showcase differs from its predecessor in that it is NOT a contest. I encourage people to link to posts they like but there will be no weekly "winner" at this showcase. It is literally a display of new blogs and nothing more than that.

However the following is the core of the article:

My reservations about a revived New Weblog Showcase are based on what blogs really are, instead of unrealistic bloggers' delusions. The blogosphere has developed into a place where a few people with grandiose, often bullying personalities, have gathered sycophants to them. The networks of sycophants trade links back and forth among themselves. Based on this totally artificial construct, bloggers in the networks develop a sense of importance completely out of touch with their actual status in society. The members of a given network also regurgitate the brain droppings of their 'great leader' on demand. As a result, the blogosphere is an echo chamber of the know-nothings much of the time...

The risk with this contest is that it will become another way for the networks to support their participant, regardless of the quality of entries submitted. Awful entries will win votes because they have been smiled on by one of the larger networks. Excellent entries will fall by the wayside because the independent bloggers lack cheering sections. The results will say everything about the organization of the blogosphere, and nothing about thinking and writing well.

So, it is with ambivalence that I link to Simon's New Weblog Showcase and urge people who qualify to consider participating. There are independent bloggers who post entries that are well-researched and ably written. But, based on what I've observed in the blogosphere, we are a minority. If new bloggers adhere to basic standards of journalism, I welcome them. However, there are more than enough bad bloggers already.

As I have just explained there is a misunderstanding in that this is not a contest. But that aside there are some serious issues raised that need addressing. Mac has an underlying assumption that all bloggers are attempting to be journalists and that blogging is attempting to become the "new media", replacing "old media". Furthermore Mac alleges the blogosphere revolves around incestuous linkage and sycophantic linkage in a self-deluding cycle. I will address each in turn.

Firstly the showcase itself can be compared to a trade fair. It is a display of products (blogs) that may not otherwise receive exposure given the large number of blogs. In true capitalistic fashion the market will dictate which of these blogs will gain a wider audience and which will not. Some will find a particular niche and others will attempt for a broader audience. The Showcase will not make a blog successful. Only consistent and good content by the blogger themselves can do that. The Showcase can help bring a blog broader exposure, something akin to advertising.

The Blogosphere itself is a microcosm of the internet. Some sites are obscure either by design or due to limited appeal. Others have a broader appeal and wider readership. A very few dominate their category, much like Amazon or Ebay. Very few blogs even pretend to be a replacement for established media. They are not disseminators of information and fact nor rivals to big media. Some, and again this is a limited category, act as an adjunct to media. Some act as monitors, finding fault with big media and its reporting of news. Some act as fact checkers, reflecting the author's particular expertise and bringing it to bear for the wider world to consider. Very few pretend to be objective reporters of fact. What blogs do bring to bear is almost immediate punditry and opinions. If others finds certain blogs that reflect or challenge them they will gain in popularity. Blogs gain and lose readership depending on that core ideal of serving the readers what they want. It should be noted that many blogs are not written for an audience, but rather as an outlet for creative writing or opinions to be read by none or all. As I have already said, most do not pretend to be "journalism" so it is difficult to understand why blogs need to adhere to so-called journalistic standards.

That's the thing about the blogosphere. It's a marketplace of ideas and opinions. Like any market some sites are popular and are mass-market products. Others are products filling particular needs. Many of these blogs do not survive for long in the harsh world of the blogosphere as it takes sustained effort to provide content consistently. The ones that succeed are because they have found their market and cater to that market, be it large or small.

As for the charge of incentuousness, the blogosphere is guilty. But again that is to be expected. Firstly the blogosphere acts as its own police force. If someone, especially a "big" blogger, posts an item that is factually incorrect you can be guaranteed that someone will pick up on it quickly. Secondly the blogosphere reflects what happens in Big Media but in a more honest fashion. Few newspapers or TV news shows will admit it openly, but the news agenda tends to be set by the very biggest in the media game. Others follow, often syndicating reports from the dominant players. This is not a surprise. The big players are big for a reason and have the resources to do these stories. Alternatively they have a particular angle or access that others must necessarily rely on (for example Al-Jazeera). This is the big media equivalent of linking, except it is nowhere near as obvious. Thirdly the blogosphere as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The constant linkage is its greatest strength and leads the reader direct to the source, or to alternative opinions, or instant responses, or responses to responses. It is the written form of that most basic human interaction: conversation.

Blogging is still in its infancy. Even given the speed of adoption in the world of IT it is not yet significant compared to greater internet use. But this is rapidly changing. There has been fast growth in readership, blog numbers and influence. Don't believe me? Howard Dean, lauded for his use of the internet in his campaign, maintained a blog. Leading politicians have followed this lead. The Democrats are giving bloggers credentials for their convention. Blogs have forced the New York Times and the LA Times to make corrections and blogs were directly responsible for bring the Trent Lott story to the fore. Blogs' readership may not be broad but largely consists of IT professionals, political types (including politicians themselves as well as political junkies), news hounds, journalists, media types and academics. As a whole this group could largely be called the intellectual class. With such an influential audience blogs can punch far above their weight in readership simply by those whom they influence. Any reader of blogs will find, as I have, that many issues and ideas are opened up to them that they might never normally have considered or even come across. It is this broad exposure in the marketplace of ideas that makes reading blogs such a worthwhile experience. It also acts as a feedback loop: those blogs that enhance the experience develop a greater readership and extend their influence, bringing in more readers and linkage.

In the end, however, the influence of blogs is only as great as the readership allows. Most readers of blogs are aware of the limitations of a single person or small group of people maintaining a website of content on a part-time and voluntary basis. Some are moving to a semi-professional basis such as Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan. However these types will always be in the minority. Most blogs are labour of love, not methods of financial gain. When reading with all of this in mind blogs are enriching, stimulating and broadening experiences. They should be enjoyed for what they are while bearing in mind the necessary limitations of their form. Like any modern market the reader has the ultimate tool in exercising their discretion: they can read as much or as little (even none) as they like. It is their loss.

As for me, I will continue to enjoy this new medium and feel flattered to be a very small part of it. The blogosphere will find its place in time and it is fascinating to watch it unfold. Most of all I love the diversity, the broad spectrum of opinion and the instantaneous cut and thrust of it all. If you don't, the newspapers and TV remain there for you to use instead.

Posted by Simon at June 28, 2004 05:52 AM

Thank you Simon, I could not have said it better myself. From my own personal experience, I write or blog for my own benefit and that of a few readers who consistently visit and with whom I enjoy a wonderful email/blog relationship.

For me, blogging is a great tool to communicate and discuss ideas in a forum where individuals who have divergent ideas can stop by and express their thoughts, while simultaneously challenging my views.

In an insulated world, where human contact is becoming more limited with ever increasing demands on our personal and professional lives, my experience is different than Mac Diva's.

The reason I continue to visit Showcase, is to see/learn what's new in the blogosphere. If I want factual truth, hey I can always research it on the net. Blogs are about what people feel and think across the world, and to that end you do a great service by displaying this wonderful mosaic of voices through this site.

Now here's my question, who died and left Mac Diva Queen Ruler of the blogosphere dictating what blogs should/should not be about?!

She sounds like some of the writing professors I had in Grad school. They "told us" what writing was to be and was not to be. We showed them, of the six of us that eventually dropped that pretensious program, 4 are published and 2 others are working on manuscripts. All of us were told we would not make it in the publishing world!

Mac Diva, get over yourself! Simon doesn't need a "critical, lukewarm endorsement", he already has a loyal following.

Posted by: Michele at June 28, 2004 06:17 PM

The previous version of the New Weblog Showcase was considered a contest. You may want to amplify that there will no longer be a competitive aspect to it, Simon. I will give the rest of your entry to some thought before responding.

I also encourage people to read my entry in its entirety at my blog or Blogcritics. I believe it is beneficial to know the basis for my opinion.

Posted by: Mac Diva at June 29, 2004 06:09 AM

I look forward to your response, Mac Diva. I hope this can turn into a useful debate about blogging.

I think it is reasonably clear in the FAQ that this is not a contest. However I do encourage people to link and even expect some to turn it into a contest, albeit on their own blogs. My intent is this remains purely a Showcase, to avoid the problems of the previous incarnation of the showcase.

Posted by: Simon at June 29, 2004 10:21 AM

While it is certainly true that there are plenty of bad blogs out there (easily the majority), there are also quite a few who do original, high-quality reporting (check out Jonathan Schanzer at http://schanzer.blogspot.com/) and original value-added analysis (Belmont Club, for example, at http://belmontclub.blogspot.com/). So it takes some reading to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I do think the blog-world rivals the "real media" in absolute quality of information presented.

The real advantage is the amount of choice available. The mass media pretty much all have the same outlook and report the same disinformation (with some exceptions, such as FrontPage or Insight). The blog world is all over the map, intellectually and ideologically, and I like that variety a lot better than the Stalinst model that the mass media has become.

Posted by: CW at June 29, 2004 02:05 PM

Outstanding response, Mr Simon!

Posted by: Madfish Willie at June 30, 2004 05:32 AM

Good essay, Simon.

As you say, Blogging (like the internet) is a relatively new technology, and one can track the historical evolutionary path of recent new technologies and see that making predictions or having specific expectations is a fool's game.

All 'visual' technologies (and I put the web in that category, among others) are INITIALLY exploited by "pornographers." They have the greatest incentive and apparently the most creative (albeit often 'criminal') minds.

Painting, photography, film, video, and the web were seized by porno producers -- and only later did the average consumer add applications.

The Blog is similar; it began as 'first person' xxx stories on porno sites, ie 'journals', and were later adopted by digital diarists -- and have only recently become recognized as 'something more', as you say, an adjunct to the mass media, a fact-checker, etc. etc.

The only problem arises when one (MacDiva, for instance) tries to pin rules, labels, and restrictive expectations on this evolving form.

It's like someone telling an early 19th century photographer that Photography should ONLY be accurate depictions of reality.

Given the variety of later (and especially contemporary [digital] photography, that sounds ludicrous.

A blog, then -- like photography -- is Information. Info comes in a variety of forms -- and performs a huge variety of functions: good, bad, ugly, and indifferent. The only rule is that there are no rules.

And at the heart of it all, Blogging is Writing -- and a sign that even in our hyper-electronic environment, a literate, linear-minded, narrative-based typographical creature might continue to exist on a planet slowly evolving to accomodate a pair of eyes gazing out from an atrophied mind and body playing video games or watching American Idol.

PS: Simon, if you haven't yet figured it out yet, MacDiva's "essays" about "Blogging" are really just pedantic exercises meant to demean other bloggers and boost her sense of importance. They rarely contain any original thoughts or insights.

Which reminds me: one might also add this to the long list of Blog "uses":

"a relatively isolated, disturbed and/or sociopathic person's only sense of importance, communication, and means of personal expression."

Posted by: Shark at June 30, 2004 03:19 PM


I made Showcase a permanent and prominent link on my page, and I very sincerely appreciated the opportunity to debut on your service. Beyond that it was terrific to find Simon World, which I linked as well. Your Asia roundup is great.

You wrote: Most blogs are labour of love, not methods of financial gain. When reading with all of this in mind blogs are enriching, stimulating and broadening experiences.

Damn straight. Forgive the crude expression, but I concur emphatically. If I can figure out how to do it, I'm going to Trackback your splendidly reasoned and insightful post on "new media."

Posted by: Frank Kelly at August 29, 2004 11:06 PM

Nice job all the way around and keep up the great work Simon!

Posted by: BlogCruiser at February 25, 2005 02:06 AM

Yes, it's true

Posted by: George Webdesign at April 21, 2005 07:06 AM

Your Asia roundup is great.

Posted by: Mario at April 21, 2005 07:08 AM
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