On the nihilism of blogging (part 1)…

I’m not at all sure that I buy some of the basic premises of this piece, but it does genuinely hit on a few gems, mostly because the writer has an acute eye for detail. But be warned, this article is massive. Here’s the first part of a two part blogNot least in his argument that with nearly 100 million blogs we are heading for the banalisation of news and, possibly more importantly, knowledge:

Whereas dot-com suits dreamt of mobbing customers flooding their e-commerce portals, blogs were the actual catalysts that realized worldwide democratization of the Net. As much as “democratization” means “engaged citizens”, it also implies normalization (as in setting of norms) and banalization. We can’t separate these elements and only enjoy the interesting bits. According to Jean Baudrillard, we’re living in the “Universe of Integral Reality”. “If there was in the past an upward transcendence, there is today a downward one. This is, in a sense, the second Fall of Man Heidegger speaks of: the fall into banality, but this time without any possible redemption.” If you can’t cope with high degrees of irrelevance, blogs won’t be your cup of tea.

Here he is on an old chestnut of ours:

There is a presumption that blogs have a symbiotic relationship with the news industry. This thesis is not uncontested. Hypertext scholars track blogs back to the hypercards of the 1980s and the online literature wave of the 1990s, in which clicking from one document to the next was the central activity of the reader. For some reason, the hypertext subcurrent lost out and what remains is an almost self-evident equation between blogs and the news industry.

It is not easy to answer the question of whether blogs operate inside or outside the media industry. To position the blog medium inside could be seen as opportunistic, whereas others see this as a clever move. There is also a “tactical” aspect. The blogger-equals-journalist might get protection from such a label in case of censorship and repression. Despite countless attempts to feature blogs as alternatives to mainstream media, they are often, more precisely described as “feedback channels”.

The act of “gatewatching” (Axel Bruns) the mainstream media outlets does not necessarily result in reasonable comments that will be taken into account. In the category “insensitive” we have a wide range, from hilarious to mad, sad, and sick. What CNN, newspapers, and radio stations the world over have failed to do – namely to integrate open, interactive messages from their constituencies – blogs do for them.

To “blog” a news report doesn’t mean that the blogger sits down and thoroughly analyzes the discourse and circumstances, let alone checks the facts on the ground. To blog merely means to quickly point to news fact through a link and a few sentences that explain why the blogger found this or that factoid interesting or remarkable, or is disagrees with it.

In this last point however, he may be betraying some limitations in his understanding of the raw scope of the technology. Blogs are as blogs do. Some hit short and fast, some are longer. All are interlinked.

Blog entries are often hastily written personal musings, sculptured around a link or event. In most cases, bloggers simply do not have the time, skills, or financial means for proper research. There are collective research blogs working on specific topics, but these are rare. What ordinary blogs create is a dense cloud of “impressions” around a topic. Blogs will tell you if your audience is still awake and receptive. Blogs test. They allow you to see whether your audience is still awake and receptive. In that sense we could also say that blogs are the outsourced, privatized test beds, or rather unit tests[9] of the big media.

The boundaries between the mediasphere and the blogsphere are fluid. A detailed social analysis would, most likely, uncover a grey area of freelance media makers moving back and forth. From early on, journalists working for “old media” ran blogs. So how do blogs relate to independent investigative journalism? At first glance, they look like oppositional, or potentially supplementary practices. Whereas the investigative journalist works months, if not years, to uncover a story, bloggers look more like an army of ants contributing to the great hive called “public opinion”. Bloggers rarely add new facts to a news story. They find bugs in products and news reports but rarely “unmask” spin, let alone come up with well-researched reports.

This deliberative role for blogs is laid out by Jay Rosen, in his consideration of the first big scalp of the big US political bloggers.

More later…

  • The Dubliner

    Geert Lovink could have benefited from the services of an editor in-order to remove such ‘water is wet’ statements that litter his rambling article, such as “Web services like blogs cannot be separated from the output they generate”, “Blogs are not a test or proposition. They actually exist.” and “The reason for this could be the “banalization of nihilism” (Karen Carr). Or to rephrase it: the absence of high art that can be labeled as such.” Presumably, it can be “labeled as such” because Lovink has just “labeled [it] as such.”

    Unfortunately, pseudo-intellectuals have a lamentable, exhibitionist disposition to cerebrally-masturbate in public. If I had a bucket of water to hand, I would have flung it over Mr. Lovink halfway through his article. That said, it is a very informative article with much of it being simple common sense and observation. He struggles with definitions, quoting the public source Wikipedia as if what was written there was universal truth. All definitions vary according to which dictionary you reference (and not just for copyright reasons). They rely on the interpretation of the lexicographer of the nuances on the word’s contextual usage(s) and how extensive his research is. As definitions vary according to how they are used, he struggled for no real purpose here. He is trying to apply a single definition to an entity which defies it – a bit like trying to define all human personalities with a single definition.

    His own struggle for definition is inconsistent with his claim of post-deconstruction: “We’re operating in a post-deconstruction world in which blogs offer a never-ending stream of confessions, a cosmos of micro-opinions attempting to interpret events beyond the well-known twentieth-century categories.” That aside, most (all?) Blogs on the north that I have read to the exact opposite: they are “attempting to interpret events” within the mainstream political agenda.

  • susan

    I think Lovink is entirely too pessimistic. Blogging is a medium, not the message. THe internet didn’t create millions of people who are not interested in investigative journalism or in having their assumptions challenged, it’s only made them more conspicuous.

    One of the few great human rights advances of our time is going to be blogs, China, and the fall of the “Great Firewall of China.” With at least 15% of the residents of Beijing somewhat fluent in English, with a growing number of techies, entrepreneurs and missionaries in Europe and America learniing Mandarin, it’s going to happen. And it’s going to be great.

  • The Dubliner

    Susan, if Irish Blogs can be taken as a measure of degree of resistance to the mainstream political consensus among Bloggers, then don’t be so sure about that. Irish Bloggers are much too deferential and often reverential to the opinions of journalists and mainstream media and to a political agenda that is controlled by political parties and establishments. Despite Irish media being infiltrated to the ninth degree by British stooges, Bloggers have no grasp of how these elements operate within the media, what agendas they serve, who controls them and by what means, or what qualitative and quantitative impact they have on the debates on the issues which they interject their propaganda into. As far as Irish Bloggers are concerned, none of this even exists with the Irish media. Yet it is the one are where Bloggers could be truly relevant in exposing.

  • susan

    I dunno, Dubliner. I don’t think you — or anyone else — could accuse Galway’s The Swearing Lady or Belfast’s the voice of treason of being “much too deferential” or reverential to the opinions of mainstream media or politicos. They are young, though, and their blogs are admittedly still a bit light on the old content.

    Do you really think an elaborate conspiracy is necessary to infiltrate and control Irish media? I don’t. I think there will be a tipping point someday. Someday, topics like The Ombudsman’s Report and the plight of republicans executed or still excluded by PIRA will launch searing discussions about the primacy of the rule of law and the value of human lives, even awkward, even inconvenient human lives, across both the blogosphere and mainstream media. I just think, sadly, that some day is not yet.

  • The Dubliner

    “Do you really think an elaborate conspiracy is necessary to infiltrate and control Irish media? I don’t.” – Susan

    Whether it was necessary or not is a separate issue from whether or not it occurred: it did indeed occur. Obviously, those who engaged in it deemed is necessary. Niall Meehan, who is Head of the Journalism & Media faculty at Griffith College, did a study at DCU’s School of Communications about how “RTE censored its censorship” i.e. not only censored coverage of the north but also censored any mention of its own censorship, keeping the public in a double state of ignorance. So, we had deliberate and extensive control of the political agenda relating to the north by the national broadcaster in the direct form of censorship – exclusion of any unapproved messages – and we had a policy of hiding this control from the public. The public were being fed official lines and propaganda by the national broadcaster which they assumed was all of the relevant information that they needed to make an informed decision about the political situation in the north when, in fact, it was anything but. So, its not so surprising that people are unaware of the control when the censorship itself was censored, is it? Like mushrooms, you were kept in the dark and fed bullshit. By the way, it was only post-ceasefire, for example, that the citizens of the south heard the accents of republicans such as Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, et al. Prior to that, their voices were banned on the airwaves under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act and no interview with any member of PSF was allowed to be broadcast. They were, in effect, non-people. The British had there own ban, but some British media outlets circumvented it by overdubbing PSF accents with the voices of actors.

    Print media was even more insidious. Editorials and opinion pieces from columnists at Independent Newspapers, for example, gave the impression of being copied almost verbatim from NIO press releases. There is a case for careful study here to determine what the exact relationship was/is between the owners of the media, certain journalists, and agencies of the British state. There is evidence showing that the chief executive of The Irish Times offered his paper to the British government as a vehicle to disseminate British propaganda in relation to the northern conflict. That evidence also shows that the British Ambassador to Ireland was very keen that the Irish media should be used in this way and that the offer from The Irish Times should be followed up. In the UK, the relationship between Murdoch’s media and British Intelligence is mutually beneficial. BI use media stooges to plant stories, for example, and Murdoch can use BI to get confidential information on his rivals – they also helped him ‘sort’ the infamous Wapping dispute. Robert Maxwell’s close relationship with Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad is also well known – mainly because he is dead and won’t sue. Independent Newspapers have acquired media in locations where the support of the British government is not only helpful but essential. So, being useful to the British in relation to its propaganda campaign in Ireland means that they are a ‘reliable’ group help acquire other newspapers. Not to mention that MI5 spending 17% of its massive £1.3bn annual budget in Ireland is bound to buy you a lot of ‘friends’ wherever you need them. Liz Curtis’ excellent book “Ireland, the propaganda war” goes into great detail about the self-censorship and propaganda of the media that more astute observers are already aware of (e.g. PIRA actions were ‘attacks’ while Loyalist actions were “reprisals” – thereby giving the impression that PIRA was responsible for pro-British violence as well as its own; deaths caused by PIRA were “murders” whereas deaths caused by the British army were “killings,” etc), but, unfortunately, there is a paucity of research in this whore squalid area of how extensive the control of the Irish media by agencies of a foreign state actually is. Ireland needs its own Noam Chomsky.

    I’ve always believed that censorship makes a conflict worse. It distorts the understanding of the nature and causes of a conflict that is essential to its resolution – you can’t resolve that which you have not been permitted to properly understand. So, in relation to the north, this insidious control by state agencies of both the British and Irish media played a key role in prolonging the conflict. And besides the practicality, there is never any moral justification for perpetuating a state of ignorance. Essentially, this form of censorship is about allowing government to engage in criminal action free from public scrutiny. Those who engaged in it are no better than collaborators in state terrorism and systematic injustice.

  • The Dubliner

    Continued:

    I also think that the British people are fundamentally decent and would not have allowed the Catholic population in the north to be treated so badly had they been informed of the facts by a media which, instead, actively concealed those facts to ensure that the British establishment would not be tarnished by them. That is the importance of truth in media. The argument that the media disseminated anti-nationalist propaganda about Ireland in-order to suppress any militant tendency that Irish nationalism may inspire doesn’t hold water, since no corresponding attempt was made to disseminate anti-nationalist about Britain in-order to suppress any militant tendency British nationalism may correspondingly inspire. In fact, British nationalism was bolstered while Irish nationalism was denigrated.

  • susan

    Section 31, eh? I look forward to tomorrow’s PowerPoint presentation, “Teaching Your Granny To Suck Eggs.” Of course I’m aware of the history of Section 31, what I was questioning was your use of the present tense in your earlier post — “Despite Irish media being infiltrated to the ninth degree by British stooges.”

    That said, the background on the chief executive of The Irish Times, the British Amabassador, etc. is very interesting and if there is credible evidence it should be exposed.

    Regarding the slant of news stories, word choices, etc., in the media, I’ll look up Curtis’s book. It would be interesting to know how much was the result of deliberate, formalised policies, how much a reflection of ingrained cultural assumptions. When I was just out of school in 1989 — not joking about the Granny part, alas — I worked at the BBC in London. It was an extraordinarily busy news year — one day you were answering fan mail for Patch the Bus, literally the next you were making travel arrangements and doing research for Foreign Affairs or Home News. Reporters closest to my own age were the most likely to scoff of reports of “irregularities” in the North, whereas the most experienced and senior correspondents were quite somber and approachable. Among people my own age, to express any sort of knowledge of the North seemed to violate some sort of class or caste taboo (as opposed to being overtly sectarian or racial) For example, regarding the Guildford Four, I remember being literally cornered one afternoon by a correspondent from Sri Lanka and an entry level researcher, an Oxbridge type who happened to be black, who were just simmering that a quote unquote “educated woman” could be convinced the Four were innocent.

    In the gigantic Home Newsroom in those days, truly breaking — i.e., the fall of the Berlin Wall — news would be announced over the loud speakers. When an announcement came like a bolt from the blue that the convictions of the Guildford Four had been quashed and they would be released the next day from such and such courthouse, the gasps of astonishment were audible. The entry level reporter who’d been so harsh with me literally doubled over saying, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it.” Whereas the then head of Home News was at my side in seconds, asking me would I get Annie Maguire of the Maguire Seven on for the evening broadcast.

  • The Dubliner

    “Regarding the slant of news stories, word choices, etc., in the media, I’ll look up Curtis’s book. It would be interesting to know how much was the result of deliberate, formalised policies, how much a reflection of ingrained cultural assumptions.”

    That’s a question so vast that no-one could possibly answer it with quantitative data. But I will make qualitative assumptions about it. If you start from the premise that the British government exerts control over its media for two purposes: ensuring that approved content enters the media and ensuring that unapproved content is kept out. Now, the second part is done through various statutory instruments such as The Official Secrets Act, The 1981 Contempt of Court Act, Public Interest Immunity certificates, etc. The first part is more difficult to accomplish, since there are no statutory powers to compel media to be compliant in disseminating propaganda (e.g. approved messages). So, this control has to be done in subtle ways which don’t give the game away that the British media is as the former editor of the Sunday Times (pre-Murdoch) Harold Evans put it “only half free.” Here, you rely primarily on the intelligences services to run this secret control – but lunches between Prime Ministers and owners and editors of newspaper, using access/denial to government figures and spokesmen as a punishment/reward system for misbehaving/compliant political journalists, firing the chairman of the BBC if he steps ‘out of line’ by telling the public the “unhelpful” truth on matters related to the national interest re the Iraq war are all good means of indicating to journalists that those who fail to stay on-message for the important messages should consider a different career. Doubtless, those whose role it is to coordinate control of the media can offer a more extensive list of the methods deployed than I. The Iraq war is a good example of how important that control of the media is to government. The Prime Minister and the media (and anyone who followed the events leading up to that war) knew that there was absolutely no justification whatsoever for it. Yet, the media was used to disseminate propaganda telling the public that war was not only necessary (missiles could hit London in 40 minutes) but was morally the right course of action. Everyone knew it was a crock of shit poured from on high except the people who actually believed what the media and the government were telling them. Will journalists admit that they lied virtually en masse? Will they pretend they were misled by information that was invented by the intelligence services and fed to them by government? No, because they were not misled. They knew they were lying, were required to lie “in the national interest” and that’s what they did. But will they admit it? No, they won’t. They’ll continue with the charade of being impartial commentators of the utmost integrity. So, you see that journalists have an imperative to lie and then to lie about lying. That’s how I would see the sincerity in the office that you described. It’s just a wild guess, of course, but it’s probably not a million miles off the mark. On another level, those “ingrained cultural assumptions” are the “the result of deliberate, formalised policies.” Vicious cycle. Now, I doubt my ranting was in anyway helpful, so I’d suggest a good book of essays on the subject edited by Paul Madden, called “The British Media and Ireland: Truth, the First Casualty.”

    Incidentally, 1989 was the year I qualified as an architect, so if you were “just out of school” then and a “Granny” now, then I must be due for burial any day now. And here is a link to the evidence “showing that the chief executive of The Irish Times offered his paper to the British government as a vehicle to disseminate British propaganda in relation to the northern conflict. That evidence also shows that the British Ambassador to Ireland was very keen that the Irish media should be used in this way and that the offer from The Irish Times should be followed up.” It was released under the 30 year rule. Obviously, someone neglected to destroy it, failing to realise its significance. What is more interesting about the letter is how completely such damning evidence was ignored by the Irish media. It seems that control of the Irish media by agencies of the British state is too raw a nerve for media? I wonder why? 😉

    http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/apr2004/irtimesmcdowell.gif

  • The Dubliner

    Just to touch back on that point about sincerity and duplicity. When a news organisation is propagating official NIO lines in place of valid information as a policy, then it is not going to admit to it, is it? The whole purpose of secret control of the media is that the control must be kept secret! So, I can’t imagine those at senior level informing any out-of-school journalist who questions why an obvious official line from the NIO is posted verbatim as ‘journalism’ being told that the reason is because “Our controllers in the government agencies asked us to.” He will most likely be ‘encouraged’ not to question such matters. Later, no encouragement is needed, as he can see that other media he reads are singing from the same hymn sheet, and he can probably figure out it isn’t because they’ve all independently deduced the exact same conclusions about the nature and causes of the conflict as propagandists in the NIO have. With NI journalists in the Irish media (particularly the Sunday Independent), one imagines that they were competing with each to outdo the NIO spin-doctors and please their masters with variations upon given themes. It puts me in mind about what Martin Ingram said about touts being able to almost smell each other.

  • susan

    Dubliner, you are right, I am not quite a granny yet, in fact my youngest child is quite young — which is to apologise for the fact that the Really Big Think I sincerely tried to have at breakfast over institutionalised bias within the BBC was interrupted by an urgent-need-to-know inquiry as to what would happen if the hamster and the parakeet had babies. (The answer I gave him was “hamatweets,” you and I know the real answer is blood, fur, feathers, and curdled disappointment all around).

    Nonetheless, briefly, while I agree there were and still are journalists and newspapers that merely parrot whatever official line they are pedalled, it is not a fair assessment of the BBC I knew. John Simpson, for example, is as fine a man and a reporter as I’ve ever encountered. He was very informed and honest about the situation in the North — whether it was intellectual curiousity or career preservation that made him decide on the whole he’d rather be in Peshewar I couldn’t say! But consider some of the real reporting teams have done for Panorama on the UDR, PIRA, Finacune, etc. Hardly NIO press releases.

    Looking back on my own experience, there were locked corner offices almost no one ever glimpsed the inside of, or even the occupants, and there were clashes and clampdowns only the people at the very top were privy to — It was the end of the Thatcher era, almost every last man and woman at the BBC was passionately pro-Labour except for the very top occupants of those locked offices. Budget cuts and defections to the higher paying ITV opened doors for many who wouldn’t have risen nearly so far or fast in earlier days. For example, the Home News Editor who seemed so wonderfully avuncular to me then was in actuality all of 31, Catholic, and Yorkshire to the bone in the very best sense of that.

    Enough of that. The link you provided on the British Ambassador and the chief exec Irish Times is fascinating. Do you know what makes me think it is genuine and credible? Not the date, not the stationery, but the description of editor Gageby. If the memo merely called him (as a Belfast born Protestant) a “white n*gger,” I’d suspect it was a little too-convenient forgery. But instead it refers to Gageby as “a very fine journalist, an excellent man, but on Northern questions a renegade a white n*gger” — and that to me sounds like the nuance oriented authentic voice of a career British diplomat. Thank you very much for the link.