Monday, March 27, 2006

A defense of blogs - part 1

Back in January, I commented on a newspaper article that took shots at both blogs ("high on opinion and low on fact") and readers of blogs ("getting only the 'daily me'"). In fact negative attitudes about blogs are quite widespread. What's more, predictions are often made that the "fad" of blogging will soon pass.

I'm planning to look at this in three posts. In this one, I'll explore what might be behind these negative attitudes. My second post will defend the blog as a form of communication. And in my third post, I'll try my hand at predicting what the future holds for blogging.

Dissing blogs

The blog of stereotype is truly a thing to be scorned: an online diary packed with inane details of the blogger's life together with uninformed rants—an exhibitionistic ego trip. Admittedly there are plenty of blogs like that. But there are lots of trashy books and magazines and nobody feels the urge to dismiss all books and magazines.

Where does the bad rap come from? I don't think there's a single answer, but here are a few contenders. A straightforward explanation is the Google effect: when people search for information on the Internet, increasingly they are stumbling onto blogs, and often stupid ones at that. An irritating distraction like this is unlikely to leave someone with a good impression of blogs. You can understand this reaction, but it's hardly a sensible way to judge the worth of the whole blogosphere.

A relatively subtle explanation may relate to the difficulty of adequately describing to someone just what a blog is. If you say "It's kind of like an online diary" (a quick but clearly inadequate description), it may perpetuate the notion that blogging is something only an exhibitionist would do.

But I think an authoritarian impulse lurks behind some of the criticism of blogging. Blogs let anyone express their opinions, not just the chosen few. Bloggers don't have to spout opinions that'll please the boss, the advertisers, the market, or the government. Bloggers don't have to express the consensus opinion, or bow to the prevailing fashions. And that makes them a threat.

This is not the first occasion when a new form of communication has threatened the status quo. The introduction of the printing press ushered in the era of mass communication. The revolutionary consequences were soon felt, not the least with the widespread printing of political pamphlets. No longer did the crown and the church have a monopoly on political expression.

Whenever democracy is ascendant, an authoritarian response is not far behind. This is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. In China, old-fashioned methods are favoured: dissident voices are simply silenced. In the West, there is no need for such a blunt approach. Authoritarian impulses take a more subtle form. Blogs are denounced as frivolous displays of vanity, offering only drivel or perhaps third-rate analysis. Blogs are just a passing fashion, a bandwagon that will soon crest the hill. But perhaps the true offense is something else: the officially sanctioned organs of mass communication have been bypassed, and (gasp!) they might eventually be displaced altogether.

Noam Chomsky has discussed what he calls "the crisis of democracy" (after the title of a report by the Trilateral Commission), namely the perception by elites that there is too much democratization, and I wonder if we're not witnessing something similar. This kind of argument is often dismissed as conspiracy theory, but it's nothing of the sort. I'm not supposing there's a cabal secretly meeting to plan the downfall of blogs (though it would make a great movie). Thought control in our society doesn't require such exotic methods: the threat is far more effectively neutralized by ridicule and marginalization. A few popular mainstream blogs are given the official blessing, and the rest are written off as juvenile nonsense.

Respect for authority and the urge to conform is sufficiently ingrained in our society that a few respected "opinion leaders" can often set the tempo for the rest. Just as the top dogs in the fashion world dictate which colours we should wear this year, a relatively small number of cultural and political sources provide clear guidance on how we should see the world. The last thing they want is to see their influence diluted.
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Blogger Peterson said...

I found your post very interesting, and am looking forward to the other two parts. I think the "authoritarian impulse" driving the criticism of blogs rests on a fear of losing control of the "message." Like a room full of people yelling to have their opinion heard - the biggest and loudest in the room right now are established media / institutions / government. Blogs allow other voices in the room to be heard, lessening the influence and effect of the biggest and loudest.

2:36 PM, March 28, 2006  
Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...

I concur.

However, and perhaps, blogs may be a good source of guidance, provocation (of thought), the flip side, and the missed perspective....but perhaps not a comfortable source of FACTs.

And talking about facts, I wonder what it is that makes things factual.

When can I be safe (and comfortable) in taking information as factual?

Is there such an identified platform?

Are things true because so it is claimed, or are they true because I can't reason against them, or are they true because they have not been proved wrong.......or are they true because they are true?

I think I have my answer, but have not shared it enough for it to be challenged.

one day may be.........

8:19 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Thanks, Peterson. I think what is truly remarkable is that, in a sense, a blog gives your voice the same volume as CNN. Or perhaps a lower-decibel and more accurate statement: collectively, blogs reduce the deafening roar of CNN to the level of an ordinary voice.

Mohammed, I agree that blogs may not be a comfortable source of facts. But perhaps we've grown too comfortable with the "facts" served up by the big guys. At the micro level, the definition of fact seems less problematic. What fascinates me, though, is that a collection of unrepresentative facts can add up to a lie.

10:50 PM, March 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a more personal note, I don't see anything wrong with most "online diary" style blogs...they can be a good way for people to stay in touch with friends and family in this electronic age where hand written letters are no longer sent, and most people would rather not send emails longer than the screen. It can be a fast, easy and fun way to stay in touch, and keep up with each others lives. I wouldn't know half as much as I do about my friends if not for our blogs, it keeps us in touch when life is too busy for us to connect in person. That said, I fully believe no one should spout out about topics they no little or nothing about, as googling a sunject and getting 20 some blogs can be tiresome.
You have definatly given me some food for thought!

7:13 PM, March 29, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Excellent point about blogs being a way to keep in touch with friends and family. I'll mention it in part 2 of my series of posts ...

7:52 PM, March 29, 2006  
Blogger mamegann said...

Peter West agrees with you, Nick. Maybe you've seen this already:

7:10 PM, April 01, 2006  

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