The Rambler :: blog

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Blogging and Perspective 

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I came across this post by Steve Rubel earlier. Rubel's suggestion is that bloggers should be TIME's people of the year, and he has opened up a campaign to e-mail the editors and put blogging's case to them.

Unsurprisingly, his post has generated a decent amount of interest in the blogosphere. It is the latest in a line of self-congratulatory burblings to have emerged - mostly from the political blogs - in the wake of the US election, giving the impression that now the election is over, the blogosphere needs something new to talk about and in desperation is turning to its navel. As loose ideas swirl around the blog universe, they start to coalesce and cool, and form solid core principles. The core formed from the nebula of ideas like Rubel's is that blogs are replacing print journalism and the mainstream media, or at the very least have the absolute power to influence it. Here's why I think this is, for now at least, ridiculous.

I work for a publication that exists in both print and online formats. It's very large, expensive, and definitive. Most good libraries need it, in one form or another. The print version was published several years ago, and is of course static. The online version is frequently updated - to the best of the abilities of a limited staff no doubt - and it is already some distance removed from its print shadow. As well as all the searching and browsing options required from an online publication, there is also a certain amount of multimedia content, substantial new text content, and most of the inevitable errors of the print version have been corrected. In print it is the biggest, most authoratative publication of its kind in the world; online it is bigger and even more authoratative, as well as more accessible and considerably cheaper.

Why even bother with the printed copy then? Well, most libraries actually own both online and print. My college library has two print copies - as well as online licenses. Both print copies are passing rapidly out of date, but both are heavily used by students: volumes are always waiting to be reshelved, and my own students (hardly short of web skills) always cite the print rather than the online version in their essays. In my office I obviously have access to the online copy on my PC in front of me, but I also have the printed version on a shelf behind my head. Most times if I just want to check a quick fact I turn round and reach up. Many of our readers admit to doing the same - my editor even turns to the book as much as the site. There is something about leafing pages that confers authority on a text that the web is, as yet, unable to do.

As far as blogging is concerned, I am now talking about blogs vs newspapers, about blogs as conduits for news and opinion. On the latter, I think there is no doubt that blogs have the upper hand. Without the pressures of deadlines (no matter how closely you might be watching sitemeter tick over), or editors, or space, or focus, good blogs can voice opinion more thoroughly, widely and controversially than I think print will ever be able to do. This is, for someone with a tagline such as mine, A Good Thing. Regarding news, however, the story is very different.

If you're reading a news story you are, presumably, doing so (on one level at least) in order to establish facts - you may also be looking for news stories to confirm your own suspicions or prejudices but I'll come to that in a minute. Establishing facts can be done in two ways: you go out and do the research yourself and compare with the original (most of us don't have the time or skills or inclination to do this), or you take on trust what the author has written. Inevitably we all take things we read on trust too easily, but there are still checks that most of us run through on a text as it is presented to us so that we might try to establish the veracity of what we're reading. One of these checks is 'does it confirm something we already believe?'. This isn't necessarily bad - if we're well-read on a subject and through diligent research have established what the facts of a case more-or-less are, then something that fits that pattern will seem more plausible than something that flies brazenly in the face of established knowledge (that of course doesn't mean it can't be true. But it usually isn't.). This is applicable to all texts, online and in print, and it's just something we do.

Most of the rest of these checks, however, are print- or online-specific. Here are a few examples to show what I mean:

1) A printed book, vs a blog. Simply from the fact that it has been printed and distributed and you bought it from a major bookstore confers a certain authority on the text. But, who published it? University press publications, for example, might be assumed to have more authority than small independents (and certainly more than self-publications). By their very nature as independent, homemade productions, blogs simply don't have this authority. By these rules, they are all bunkum.

2) But we suspect that that's not true. They can't all be junk. Something we're much more likely to do is to check a blog author through Google - I don't think I've ever looked up a book author this way. What else (where else) have they published? Do they have any apparent agenda which might conflict with their portrayal of the facts? Can we find a picture? (Book authors all get a flyleaf picture, so we don't pay much attention to them.)

3) What about design? All books essentially look the same, but blogs don't. My experience of recently filtering through more than 6,000 links sorting good from bad told me how important design was to one's impressions of a site. If a site is clean, navigable, doesn't swarm with geocities pop-ups, and has a named author and a date, it immediately feels more authoratative. Poorly coded Yahoo homepages, no matter how good their content, have an uphill struggle and the same goes for blogs.

And so on and so on. Blogs are obviously filling spaces the mainstream media cannot reach, and will eventually begin to replace parts of it (especially now that many newspapers are starting to run their own blogs). Already an important job blogs do is draw attention to stories that the MSM may not cover, or cover too lightly; but in most of these cases, this is done by linking to already published print journalism. Very rarely do you see actual new stories broken by the blogs - and certainly I've yet to see one posted by those doing much of the trumpeting now. The role of most blogs at the moment is as secondary source channels and to commentators, not primary source authors. This will no doubt change, but until a mindset is in place for reading websites that is analogous to pulling a leather-bound volume from the shelf, blogs will remain the introspective opinion-pushers that they are today.

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