Monday, November 17, 2003

The problem with blogs

Jennifer Howard has an essay in which she accuses bloggers of being an inbred mutual-admiration society. It can hardly be said to be obscure, since it was written for the Washington Post.

Had it been written for the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, though, it would still be national news on Planet Blog because it's been noticed by Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit. (See also Ralph Luker at History News Network.)
Washington Post | It's a Little Too Cozy in the Blogosphere
What began as the ultimate outsider activity -- a way to break the newspaper and TV stranglehold on the gathering and dissemination of information -- is turning into the same insider's game played by the old establishment media the bloggerati love to critique.

*Honk* Hang on. How many unproven assertions can you pack into a single sentence? To pick just one, I envy her certainty regarding how and why blogs began: It's a subject of debate, sometimes intense, among long-time bloggers.
The more blogs you read and the more often you read them, the more obvious it is: They've fallen in love with themselves, each other and the beauty of what they're creating. The cult of media celebrity hasn't been broken by the Internet's democratic tendencies; it's just found new enabling technology.

Doubtless Professor Reynolds is too modest to point this out, but I'll say it:

If there is an 800-pound-gorilla Blog Media Celebrity, it's Glenn Reynolds. Ms Howard managed to get through her overview of What Blogs Are without mentioning his name once. How comprehensive can it be? You may suggest it wasn't meant to be comprehensive, but heck, she says she knows The Problem With Blogs:
The problem's built into the medium itself. Blogs are set up to be personal forums for someone's opinions. That's the point, the liberating thing about them. Bloggers don't have to get their copy past an editor, and they can sound off at any length -- no word limits in cyberspace. They're products of a seismic cultural shift that makes someone's hangover as newsworthy as the arrival of a Harry Potter novel.

That's not a bug, Ms Howard, that's a feature. Within the realm of People Who Read A Particular Blog, the author's hangover might well be the Big Story. (Parenthetically, I could argue that the release of a new Harry Potter novel is not "newsworthy", at least as I define the word. "News" would be if J. K. Rowling decides not to write the other two books. She's richer than the Queen of England now; she doesn't need the money. Lightning has struck five times. That's more luck than a lot of authors get: What if hers has run out? She could well decide that it's all downhill from here, hand her notes over to her editors with fondest regards, and retire to an unnamed Caribbean island. I know I'd be tempted. That would be newsworthy.)

The point is not that your average blogger can write better than an Old Media columnist, or is better connected, or is More Important (whatever that means). I'll pick the example I'm most familiar with: Myself. I have a strong enough ego to think that, on a good day, I can write a reasonably entertaining paragraph. It amuses me to try. The attempt forces me to put my thoughts in order in a way that woolgathering at a traffic light can never do. This process is important... to me. Whether it's important to my readers is something they'll have to judge. But writing is communication, and if I never show it to anyone, I might as well be sitting at that traffic light talking to myself. That's what this blog is for. I can't speak for all the others, but it seems to me that more than a few of them share my reasons.

I certainly don't flatter myself that anything I have to say is particularly Important, but it's a way to contribute, however modestly, to the Exchange of Ideas that civilization is. I don't do this to be a part of a (or The) blogging community, but to be a part of the human race. Exchanging thoughts is what we do. The medium is unimportant.

If blogs and bloggers are to have a profound impact on Old Media, it is not to "break the... stranglehold on the gathering and dissemination of information", but to contribute to the ongoing cultural discussions that define what is newsworthy -- in fact, that define what newsworthiness is.

Professor Reynolds and Mr Luker agree that neither of them had ever heard of any of the blogs Ms Howard cites, on which she presumably bases her blog's-world view. Neither, for that matter, had I. Does this mean they aren't representative? No. Does it mean they aren't any good? Certainly not.

Does it mean you can learn everything you need to know about the world in general, or Planet Blog, by reading them? The odds are against it.

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