Blogging: an interview
An Argentinian journalist, whom I know and like, interviewed me by email this evening about the Blogging phenomenon. Here, for the record, is what I said.
Q. Is blogging a new form of journalism?
To a limited extent, in the sense that the technology enables a immensely wide range of observers to publish their thoughts. But most bloggers are not reporters in the accepted sense of the term. Part of the difficulty in understanding blogging comes from the fact that the term encompasses a fantastically wide range of publishing activities — from personal journals (diaries online — see livejournal.com for examples) to filters (pages of links to stuff the blogger finds interesting or important — see www.scripting.com or BoingBoing) to really serious, thoughtful essay-type sites (i.e. www.stevenberlinjohnson.com or www.shirky.com).
Q. Is it a threat to traditional media?
Yes, in the sense that it means that traditional media cannot get away with pretending they are the only conduits for information or reporting; no in the sense that serious reporting requires training and resources and most bloggers have neither. My view is that you need to take an ecological view of this. Blogging is a new ‘species’ in the media ecosystem. It feeds off conventional media, and increasingly contributes to it (in the sense that mainstream media pay increasing attention to blogging). I see a symbiotic relationship developing between blogging and old media.
A key aspect of the Blogging world is RSS (really simple syndication) software, which you can think of as a kind of hidden wiring. There are millions of blogs out there, and so on average you’d expect that each one would have only a tiny audience, because nobody knows about them and nobody has the time to go to a million websites a day. But RSS changes that. A RSS-enabled site (and most blogs are) has a piece of software that creates a text file summarising the changes to the front page every time it is updated. Most bloggers have another program running on their computer which enables them to ‘subscribe’ to Blogs that they like. This program then checks the RSS feeds of each site once a day, and pulls down the headlines to the user’s computer. This enables one to monitor a huge number of blogs in a very efficient manner. I monitor about 250 blogs every day using this technology. But I only go to a site when an item in its RSS feed intrigues or interests me.
This means that ideas spread like wildfire through the ‘blogosphere’ as it’s called.
Q. How do you deal with issues of ethics and reliability?
You can’t enforce either — bloggers are a pseudo-random sample of humanity (well, of Western, industrialised humanity anyway). Some are truthful and honest and conscientious. Some are lazy and ignorant. Some, no doubt, are fantasists or liars. But we’re talking about a huge marketplace for ideas. What tends to happen is that interesting and reliable bloggers build up big audiences, and dishonest or uninteresting or unreliable ones don’t. There’s an important difference in metaphor here: in traditional media the model is: edit first, then publish; in blogging it’s: publish first, then edit. But the ‘editing’ is done by readers filtering out substandard or unreliable stuff — in other words, it’s done at the edges, not the centre.
A big issue never properly discussed in traditional media when they consider blogging is the issue of ethics and reliability in such media. For example, look at US radio, Fox news, the Murdoch press everywhere. Where are the ethics and reliability there?
Q. Which would you say were the most important examples of bloggers getting scoops before journalists, and of giving better information?
The most celebrated examples are (a) the way Dan Rather and CBS were brought down by bloggers who exposed the fact that the documents about Bush’s dodgy national Service records were forged, and (b) the way a combination of bloggers and traditional media brought down Senate majority leader Trent Lott. This last case was extensively analysed by the Harvard School of Government in a major case study which highlighted my point about the emerging symbiotic relationship.
Q. What is the incentive that moves a blogger? And you in particular?
Mass media are built on the assumption that the consumers of its product are passive and uncreative. That’s simply not true. Almost every human being has some element of creativity, but until the Web and the Net arrived there was no way of expressing that other than in personal, non-published form. The Net changed all that — it enabled anyone to be published, without having to go through the gatekeepers who traditionally controlled access to the printing press and the broadcasting studio.
I think most serious bloggers publish because they want to have their thoughts read and considered by others.
The statistics on blogging are not terribly reliable but most estimates say there are about 10 million blogs out there at present. Of these probably no more than 50,000 to 100,000 are updated regularly. But that’s still an astonishing number — 50,000 thoughtful, informed and creative people publishing every day or every second day. It’s a major change in our media ecology.
I have had a Blog since 1997. I keep it because I want a place to note things that interest me — and which may interest others who are concerned about the same things.
Q. You say [in your Observer column]: “First, there is the contempt for ‘amateur’ writers, endemic in professional journalism. Hacks are always astonished by anyone who writes for no pay, so upwards of half a million such amateurs now publishing blogs leaves the pros speechless. It also leads them to deride blogs as an epidemic of vanity publishing rather than the glorious outbreak of free expression it actually represents.” Could you explain that a little more?
Many professional journalists — in Britain at least — have a contempt for, or a patronising attitude towards, their readers/listeners/viewers. They see them as essentially passive and ignorant consumers of the product who will accept the reporter’s view of things. But the fact is that journalists are always generalists, skimming over the surface of things, and out there are readers/listeners/viewers who know far more than journalists about many of the things they report and comment on. Dan Gillmor, who’s just published a book on this stuff (‘We Media”, O’Reilly Press) says “there’s always someone out there who knows more about any particular story than you do”.
Until the Web/Blogging, there was no effective back-channel for readers/listeners/viewers to have a say. Now that they are able to respond, some journalists don’t like it — and they express that dislike by trying to deride or belittle blogging as ‘vanity publishing’ by sad folks who couldn’t get published any other (i.e traditional) way. I think this attitude is indefensible. Blogging is a serious phenomenon which professional journalists need to heed, if only because they are likely to learn things from it even about the stories on which they so confidently report.
In the technical fields in which I am interested, I would never turn to mainstream media first for information because (a) they are generally so ignorant about technology and (b) months behind what’s actually happening. So I read blogs first in these areas — and trust them more, because I know the Bloggers.
One of the lovely things about being quoted in newspapers like La Nacion is that my linguistically-adept friends — who regard me as a retard in these matters — are thrown by the fact that I appear to be speaking fluent Spanish! I look forward to the next batch of astonished letters.