The plurality of blogs and how they dig into context…

Blogs: exposing the hidden contextsThe Irish Times have published my piece on blogging, written originally in response to Brian Boyd’s article on how blogs can give a biased and misleading view of the events they purport to give witness to. Also at my own site.Blogs: exposing the hidden contexts

Blogging is dangerous, radical and going mainstream, writes Mick Fealty

It has been argued that blogging is both partial and subjective and that its many often- conflicting truths should be handled with extreme caution.

We’ve seen the debacle surrounding the reporting of Liam Lawlor’s death in Moscow. There was also the entirely fictional Associated Press report of stranded citizens of New Orleans shooting at a US army helicopter.

Both demonstrate that the need to be certain of the truth is a major concern for journalists, too.

Of course, it is possible to blog badly, to misanalyse or to mislead, which many tens of thousands and perhaps millions of people routinely do. But they are largely unread. If bloggers are tough on lazy journalism, they are ruthless with fraudulent blogging.

The comeback for an established blogger on pushing a blatantly false line is likely to be immediate, and disastrous. Ergo, good bloggers rise to the top and must work hard to stay there.

So what is “blogging”? Simply put, it is a technology that allows anyone to publish their work online, with little effort and, initially at least, little cost.

Of course, the quality of the “blogging” is as variable as the number of blogs. And the numbers are impressive. In April 2002 there were an estimated 500,000 blogs in existence. At the time of writing there are 21.4 million. The number doubles every six months.

Above all, blogging is about readers who write, who talk, who gossip, and who often expose new, otherwise hidden contexts from under the grand narratives that grow around public events.

Online, bloggers can pick a story clean from the moment it appears. They can track reactions from the early stages of a story through to the analysis stage a week, a month or even years later; often when the mainstream media have presumed the issue is dead.

This capacity to disrupt the normal news cycle is exciting for both the blogger and his audience. Of course, speed is dangerous. But then again, the blogger is not compelled by deadlines to tell the whole story at once.

Rather like a reporter’s notebook, the truth is always emergent, contingent on someone producing another fact or story or challenging the veracity of those already presented.

Since its invention the internet has transformed old hierarchical pyramids of knowledge into flatter knowledge networks. Blogging has accelerated this process by multiplying the number of writers in relation to the number of readers.

At its very least, it gives individuals the means to disaggregate news bundles and the space to think aloud and share those thoughts with others. Personally, I’m more likely to blog to discover what I think of a given subject than to push or propagandise a certain line of thinking.

Through the network of the web bloggers get instant reactions to their pieces from dedicated readers and other bloggers. They are not in control of these reactions, but it does draw them into a community setting. Other bloggers compete to provide authoritative accounts of the context of social, political and economic events.

This collective enterprise creates the capacity to embrace and express complexity in an increasingly multipolar world.

In the US the conversation has moved on. Bloggers have become part of the mainstream, with the largest of them, the left-liberal Daily Kos attracting some 800,000 visitors a day.

California-based Mickey Kaus was taken in house to Slate magazine, owned by the Washington Post, several years ago and, in the biggest deal to date, pioneer blogger Andrew Sullivan has signed a deal with Time Warner to bring his blog inside its own corporate brand.

Significantly, it is on blogger’s terms. “I won’t be running my posts past any editor before they appear. I will continue to write simply what I believe or think, however misguided I may be. I will continue to correct any errors in the full light of day and change my mind if new events demand it or new facts compel it,” Sullivan says.

Analyst David Steven believes this raises important questions about how the news market will develop as it adapts to the very different conditions of the internet. “I think we’re going to see a pronounced shift towards the brand of the writer. Media outlets may find themselves in the position of football clubs, forced to pay higher and higher premiums if they want to keep their stars,” he says.

As Marshall McLuhan once said of television, the medium remains the message. For their part, the mainstream media cannot remain aloof from a medium that speaks directly to its readership, and listens to it.

Collectively, the blogging network possesses enormous positive capacity to expand and multiply that readership. And, in the US at least, it has shown considerable negative power to disrupt and destroy big media reputations.

Blogging can be an interactive form of reliable journalism. It will continue to entertain, inform, enthral and offend. And, just as surely, it will continue to encroach on the media mainstream. But like that mainstream, it should never dispense with the absolute necessity to deal in truth, however fractured, contradictory or various it may appear in the ever quickening time of the Internet.

Mick Fealty is visiting research associate at Queens University Belfast and runs the website sluggerotoole.com

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  • Mickhall

    Mick

    Good piece, myself I do not feel the daily newspapers have anything to fear from Blogs as if you look at the best, there first port of call would have been either the Daily’s or 24 hour news channels. What Blogs like slugger do is supplement the main news outfits. Look deeper into stories and not only from one political perspective as most of the corporate media does. After all if you buy a Daily paper you are well aware where it stands politically, not so with the best blogs, contributors will come from across the political spectrum.

    There is another point here which fore me shows the staleness and conservatism of the print media, some of the best bloggers who have over recent years come into our work places and homes via the web, have not prospered when they have transfered their talents to the mainstream media. The edge has been taken off their work, the raw energy and anger is gone. No where is this more obvious than in the guy from Harry’s Place who now works for the Guardian. Although for me the best example is from the north, the guy who ran one of the funniest and hardest hitting blogs, no one was safe from his ridicule, laughter is a heavy piece or artillery in the right persons hand and Emerson would have made any provo armorer proud if he had been amongst their ranks.. Thus it is the freedom of expression, to go where writs, D notices and political cowardice make the Daily’s fear to tread which makes the world of blogging the only game in town. If we wish to expand the envelope of our democracies and freedoms, as the politicians and their pals in the corporate media try and close public spaces down and restrict the flow of free thought and information. The blogs by just being there prove what nincompoops and hypocritical charlatans the likes of Bush, Blair and dear old Bertie actually are. long may it be so.

    Regards

  • dav

    “the need to be certain of the truth is a major concern for journalists”

    Do you really consider this a major priority? Getting away with telling lies or simply making lies truth seems to be the real concern for journalists.

    How many people do you think are aware of what really happened in New Orleans, how many know there were no marauding hoards of black rapists? Telling lies in the corporate media is quite simple and rarely warrants (in their view) punishment.

    The real concern for corporate journalists is keeping their jobs, i.e. staying well clear of anything too controversial.

    Paul Wood BBC News 22/12: British and American
    forces “came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights”.

    A barefaced lie masquerading as fact.

  • Aaron

    An interesting and challenging piece, Mick. I find myself picking at the bones of it which agreeing with the overall sentiment.

    In the interest of good manners, I keep myself to a couple of brief points..

    “Of course, it is possible to blog badly, to misanalyse or to mislead, which many tens of thousands and perhaps millions of people routinely do. But they are largely unread.”

    That all depends on the definition of blog badly. I think the way most people blog badly is through ommission, the art of choosing to fail to pass comment on things that don’t fit their world view. And there are plenty of popular blogs that practice this black art. This can leave the readers, and the author, in a cycle which leads to polarisation of opinion, and allows views which once seems extreme to become more accepted.

    You could argue that the multitude of voices will prevent the above happening.. but you’d be relying upon people subscribing to the right spread of voices.

    Moving on..

    ““I think we’re going to see a pronounced shift towards the brand of the writer. Media outlets may find themselves in the position of football clubs, forced to pay higher and higher premiums if they want to keep their stars,” he says. ”

    This isn’t a new development. Newspapers have been paying a premium for recognized voices for decades. Perhaps you think this will become more common, but I would say it’s less likely, as advertising revenues dip due to the increasingly fractured nature of audiences.

    Anyway, that’s enough from me.

    Incidentally, is there anyone else out there that things that message boards are having a greater influence on the average web user than blogs?

  • This is the best piece about the nature of blogging, and particularly its internal dynamics, I’ve seen to date. In particular the implicit explanation of the value system of bloggers, and what almost all of the MSM (and most bloggers) still don’t get – the pack nature of the blogosphere, with all the perfectly measurable psychosocial behaviours that result. It’s the pack mentality that is the essence of the blogosphere’s self-regulation, like academic peer review on speed.

    I don’t know why Boyd went off the deep end in the first place – he’s a heck of a nice guy and not usually one to get it so badly wrong – but you’ve offered the best apologia for blogging I’ve ever seen offered on this island.

  • topdeckomnibus

    What about some figures about the singular nature of proper media response against the plurality of the bad blogger ?

    Here is a link

    http://www.greenparty.ie/en/news/latest_news/harney_must_ensure_hospital_generator_failure_in_ennis_is_not_repeated

    Applying US Army reliability expectations for back up generators in power outages

    The chances against the above local incident in Ireland are about 2500 to 1

    During the power outage in New York 2003 four out of 76 hospitals lost backup power against a reliability expectation of 1.5

    The chances against the Guys Hospital backup genny failures of 1987 and 1995 both featuring the same three fault failure sequence are 1,000,000,000,000 to 1 (against the system suffering normal reliability problems)

    The chances against the Dounreay back up generator failing twice more after failing and causing the four billion pound serious nuclear leak 100,000,000 to 1

    The chances against all three backups at Plum Island US Ebola research plant all failing at the same time (as they did) 1,000,000 to 1

    The chances of all four backups failing at the US Fermi nuclear reactor plant (which they did) 100,000,000 to 1

    The chances of the mainstream media being right, to treat these as non malign coincidences, multiple all the above factors.

    But apparently the idea that someone may actually have acted upon or been inspired by the IRA Garland Plan is “Bad blogging” ?

    http://www.preventableterror.co.uk

    Happy New Year Mick

  • aquifer

    Bloggers have a few key advantages over journalists.

    They are freed from the need to flatter politicians, militant revolutionaries, or functionaries to gain access and material, so can be sceptical of them to the point of expressing contempt when due.

    When dealing with politicians who use guaranteed media presence to pump sectarian division, or with revolutionary cults skilled in propaganda and deception, these are useful correctives.

    Bloggers do not have to fill columns or express opinions when they have nothing sensible or interesting to say. A mercy to all.

    They can speculate freely about motive or explanations for events without having to produce evidence.

    For example, revolutionary gangs may well be moving to using arson, sabotage, criminality, selective intimidation and the destruction of civil relations between religious groups to counter the primacy of democracy, private property, and human rights. Governments may do similar secret stuff. It is a brave journalist who gathers enough facts to publish any one case, but we may need to have the possibility considered anyhow if we are to escape manipulation or eventual coercion.

  • Aaron,

    “I think the way most people blog badly is through ommission, the art of choosing to fail to pass comment on things that don’t fit their world view. And there are plenty of popular blogs that practice this black art. This can leave the readers, and the author, in a cycle which leads to polarisation of opinion, and allows views which once seems extreme to become more accepted”.

    That goes back to Boyd’s point about them being partial – both senses of the word. The criticism is valid in the older regime in which the papers or broadcast media is constrained by space and time to filter the news, or act as gatekeeper.

    But it is the upfront acceptance of partiality that allows the reader to reference more widely. Their greatest utility lies is turning up material that has been forgotten, neglected or wilfully hidden. Or indeed simply shedding a new light on material already in the public domain.

    But you’ve anticipated my reply. To re-iterate McLuhan, the medium is the message. In this case the form is the competitive/co-operative interpersonal network that is the partial and total blogosphere. Effectively blogs function at the nodal points of large and complex social networks. Somehow the relationship counts almost as much as the content. Though, as Richard correctly points out, quality of content will determine how far you are listened to and respected within that network of peers.

    Readers will exercise natural choices. I’ve seen some US readers come into reading Northern Irish politics, through Slugger and then migrate to other blogs that more precisely matches their own political outlook and taste. This is also something you expect to see in mainstream media.

    “This isn’t a new development. Newspapers have been paying a premium for recognized voices for decades. Perhaps you think this will become more common, but I would say it’s less likely, as advertising revenues dip due to the increasingly fractured nature of audiences”.

    Au contraire. It is a branding thing. In this respect, what’s important about the blogging revolution is the rise of the writer/journalist brand. Sure television and radio have set up some big journalistic names, but these operate in a closed static market. It’s hard to imagine where Paxman might lift his kit and move to after jacking in Newsnight. He is integral to the Newsnight brand.

    The examples I gave were of individuals who were already writing their own journalism, but who’s blogging gave them a brand credibility of their own in the context of the blogosphere. One which for them has become bankable over and above their journalism. This is new.

    And this money question is important. It may be one reason why some talented bloggers have been holding back. Someone’s got to pay the mortgage, and up to now its been hard to see how blogging can do it. The Sullivan deal proves that some executives see real value in the blogosphere.

    Ad revenue is falling off line, but rising online. The problem many media organisations have encountered it that charging a subscription in the short term helps offset costs of running a website. But it severely restricts growth. You cannot bundle all your content and keep it bundled if you want to join the conversation.

    The New York Times has encountered some disgruntlement amongst its senior opinion formers since it locked the best of them in its Times Select premium section. They are simply not being read in anything like the volumes they were before. And some feel their wider influence is waning as a result.