In the free Republic of the Blogosphere

The weekend’s debate on political blogging has churned on on the blogosphere. Britain’s blog sceptic-in-chief Oliver Kamm goes on to demonstrate the utility of blogging by pointing us to this conversation on its verities or otherwise. The Cass Sunstein piece in the Boston Review is worth grabbing too (though well written, it is very lengthy):

Emerging technologies, including the Internet, are hardly an enemy here. They hold out far more promise than risk, especially because they allow people to widen their horizons. But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers.

And if we believe that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers as such. Whether such dangers will materialize will ultimately depend on the aspirations, for freedom and democracy alike, by whose light we evaluate our practices. What I have sought to establish here is that in a free republic, citizens aspire to a system that provides a wide range of experiences—with people, topics, and ideas—that would not have been selected in advance.

One thing I both agree, and take issue with, is the echo chamber effect. A lot of biggish bloggers dispense with the comments section. Oliver himself has not in my memory had them open, though they now come standard with most blog software. It is an entirely understandable decision. They call for huge management input, and in offering often anonymous commenters a white space to fill you are opening up potentially complex legal liabilities.

But there is also, what I often refer to as ‘the Barfly problem‘. That is to say the situation where a small number of people feel obliged/compelled to comment on every thread, whether they know something about it, or not. This can lead to a situation where even when someone who does have real world knowledge is shooed from the door, because their import does not fit the political/social norms of the in-group.

Objections to new insight most often take the form of the ad hominemdon’t listen to him, he’s a bollix…‘ routine. It is the very unstructured nature of the internet based technologies that opens this possibility time and time again. It is the nihilist impulse that Geert Lovnink fears ultimately restricts the possibilities of all blogging:

Because of the vastness of the blog plain, it is not a contested space. First of all, differences of opinion have to exist already and do not fall out of sky. Manufacturing opinion is a fine art of ideology creation. Debating should not be mixed up with a netwar style of campaigning in which existing (political) flights are being played out on the Net. The pushy tone is what makes blogs so rhetorically poor. What lacks in the software architecture is the very existence of an equal dialogue partner.

The result of this is a militarization, expressed in a term such as “blog swarm”, defined by Christian rightwing blogger Hugh Hewitt as “an early indicator of an opinion storm brewing, which, when it breaks, will fundamentally alter the general public’s understanding of a person, place, product, or phenomenon.” It is communality of bias, or let’s say conviction, that drives the growth of blogging power and its visibility in other media.

Indeed, at this moment, there seems to be such a militarised flame war going on between several British big bloggers at this moment, much of which seems to turn on the question of Celebrity Blogger status.

But none of this is an inevitable outworking of the blogosphere. Important conversations pass that don’t make the headlines or set the agenda, but which do subtly move individuals and organisations on. If bloggers and their commenters rarely turn out to be he unacknowledged legislators of the world, by keeping a steady eye on detail and the small print they can re-connect the citizen and a wider republic of ideas, policy and action.

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