Saturday, April 08, 2006

A defense of blogs - part 2

In my first post of this three-part series, I considered the possible origins of negative attitudes about blogs.

In this post, I'm going examine the significance of blogging as a form of communication. And what better starting point than Marshall McLuhan? I can't claim to understand much of what he wrote, but his epigrams are wonderfully insightful. Perhaps most famous is his assertion that "the medium is the message." And when it comes to blogs, what is the medium? Well, it's global personal publishing that's easy, interactive, and effectively free. McLuhan is suggesting that we should focus on the medium rather than the content per se. Critics of blogging miss this point, choosing instead to decry the quality of much of the content. Here is how journalist Ron Steinman saw things, writing in June 2004:
"Reputedly, there are more than a million blogs and still counting. It is scary. Truly, who has the time to read, digest, and make sense of all the words spewed forth? I do not. I do not want to try."
Methinks he doth protest too much. Is Steinman perhaps suppressing an obsessive-compulsive urge to clean the filthy stables of the blogosphere? Given that the number of blogs today is estimated to be upwards of 30 million, Hercules himself would be daunted.

Fortunately, nobody need take on such a task. The wonderful thing about blogs is if you don't like them, you don't need to read them! Unlike spam, which is an irritation we could all do without, you can just ignore blogs if that's your preference. You can also ignore books, magazine, television, and movies if you like. Goodness knows, there's lots of trash there too! But most of us reckon that it's possible to separate some of the wheat from the chaff. I don't imagine anyone is entirely successful, but there's lots of good stuff out there, and some good strategies for finding it.

Arguably, the challenge is much greater when in comes to blogs. One solution is to stick to the "A-list" blogs. But I think that's a real mistake, because the message of the blog medium is this: for the first time in human history, an ordinary person can share his or her perspectives, as he or she sees fit, with the rest of the world. A fabulous flowering of creativity and self-expression is taking place; why miss out on it?

It might be argued that blogs are not unique in this respect. Newsgroups, electronic mailing lists and internet forums have many similarities with blogs, and predate blogs by many years. However a key distinguishing feature of blogs is their ownership. Fundamentally, newsgroups, mailing lists, and forums are communities, with all the associated strengths and weaknesses. The invitation is: "come and share as we discuss X". While a community can grow around a blog through the commenting feature, the blog belongs to the owner not the community, and the central focus remains the owner's posts. The invitation is: "check out my posts, and leave comments if you like". In no way is this meant to denigrate the value of the comments. Indeed I find the comments on my blog to be a wonderful source of insight and humour—and at least half the fun. Similarly, when I read other blogs I often check the comments. Among other things, they give a great sense of who's reading (although of course, there may be many readers who remain silent).

Ironically, despite predictions (by McLuhan among others?) that the written word was doomed by the dominance of electronic media like radio, television, and the internet, blogs are heralding a renaissance in writing. The linearity of the printed page was widely dismissed as old-fashioned and boring, allegedly incompatible with the infinitesimal attention span we've all developed. This was always a weak argument, premised on an oversimplified analysis of patterns of media consumption. What is true is that we read blogs differently from how we read a newspaper, or a magazine, or a book. This is partly due to the "post-centric" nature of blogs (an observation attributed to Meg Hourihan). It is also partly a function of hyperlinks. Incidentally, there has been extensive comment on the journalistic value (or lack thereof) of blogs. I don't intend to weigh in on this, except to point out that the use of links in blog posts allows for the attribution of sources and justification of claims—something the print media could sometimes benefit from. For more on the relationship between blogs and journalism, see this article by Steven Johnson.

The internet is widely seen as the realization of McLuhan's "global village". But unlike many villages of old, blogs are making this one profoundly democratic: now it is not only the chief and the high priest whose voices can be heard—we've always been forced to listen to them—instead we can tune in to whomever we like. A. J. Liebling pointed out that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one"—well now everyone can own a press. A soapbox for all! (Without the noise pollution.)

By opening up communication, I believe that blogs are helping to bring about a huge increase in intellectual efficiency for humanity. Ideas previously isolated by geography (even on a local scale) and stifled by dominant cultural and political assumptions can now flow freely. Earlier technologies have only hinted at this kind of exchange.

One frequently-heard criticism is that blogs are largely driven by vanity and ego. On the one hand, this is simply a tautology. A person's blog is, after all, a projection of themselves (their ego) onto the internet. On the other hand, this is a psychological claim: bloggers derive personal gratification from expressing themselves. But then this too has a tautological flavour, for why else would they do so? Presumably then, the claim is that there is too much ego and pride (a rather more neutral term than vanity) involved. In the case of a blog that is transparently self-glorifying, the claim is plausible. But regardless, there is always the choice to ignore any given blog, particularly if it offers nothing to the reader. On balance, blog narcissism would seem to be a harmless release. And thanks to professionally-designed blog templates, we don't have to deal with so many hideously ugly vanity pages (actually that one is a parody).

I leave you with some interesting links. As so often, the Wikipedia entry on blogs is excellent, with some interesting history and a list of 20 (!) different types of blogs. Seth Godin has a neat e-book about blogs. Finally, this one is more about newsgroups than blogs, but it's too much fun not to include.
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Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...

Nick I am just wondering.....

Do Blogs attract like minds and repel unlike ones?

This could be unhealthy as it would prevent opposing views and thus evolution of thought.

3rd world of www?

I hope not.

9:21 PM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I think this is a legitimate concern, and I probably wasn't very fair about it in my post on "egocasting".

I think that a number of factors can lead to this "preaching-to-the-choir" phenomenon. One is that disagreement can sometimes degenerate to name-calling, which discourages open discussion. Another is the human tendency to seek approval and solidarity.

My mother's godmother maintained that you should subscribe to (at least) two newspapers: one that you agree with and one that you disagree with. My take on it is that one should seek out the most cogent expressions of opposing views and learn from them. And I think there's always something to learn.

7:25 PM, April 26, 2006  
Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...

Yes it is very hard to avoid degeneration of dialogue. One way is to discuss with those one physically and frequently interacts with. I have realised this for quite sometime now, and am less interested in discussions with virtual people.

But discussions can take place without degenerating, and we all know that.

That was my point in a recent discussion with some friends back in Hong Kong on the cartoon controversy -- that there is a difference between freedom to express and freedon to provoke.

Another friend archived our e-mail exchanges on the Net without editing -- so quite a bit of lingusitic errors there.

The subject of my e-mails was "Abuse of Freedom". You might want to comment on it, but if at all some day you decide to read it, then it will be good if you could read it all the way to the end. do go to the end, please (12-emails in all).

7:54 PM, April 26, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Thought I'd add this link to a post by Antonella Pavese which is part of her series on "How to Blog". Hey, I'm partial to series ...

8:13 PM, May 07, 2006  

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