Blogs and their relevance (or lack thereof)

Last weekend Janet Street-Porter wrote for the Independent rubbishing the entire medium of blogs, while Yasmin Alibhai-Brown last monday wrote for the same paper suggesting that bloggers must have no life (you can read the opening extract here; the whole article is paywalled). I got this from Bloggerheads via Saracen. This is not the first time I’ve seen articles in the print media claiming that blogs are just verbal diarrhoea; Zoe Williams, in the New Statesman in 2004, called blogs “diaries of nobodies”:

As such, their main constituency is bored students and, consequently, their natural writers are bleak, nihilistic layabouts, prostitutes, people pretending to be prostitutes, Dungeons and Dragons freaks and nail bombers. There should be no place in this medium for politicians, “foremost journalists”, wannabe think-tankers, soi-disant serious novelists or campaigners of any sort.

JSP’s opinion on blogs is only to be expected, because when the internet itself was new, she rubbished that as well, calling it “blotting paper to soak up the socially challenged” on Channel 4 in March 1996. I did not see it, but did see a leader article attacking it in one of the British computer magazines (Personal Computer World or PC Plus, something like that) accusing her of simply recycling old stereotypes about sad computer geeks. Now that the internet is much more available than it was then (the only people with access to anything like broadband were in universities and other institutions, and the bandwidth for the whole site was only as big as some broadband offerings today), JSP has set up her own site, “and it’s most definitely NOT interactive”:

You can log on, have a laugh, sneer at my old publicity photos, read some columns and log off again. I don’t crave a “dialogue” with you, nor am I going to bore you to death by posting what I weigh today, who I shouted at on the tube and which ex-boyfriend I dreamt about last night.

This is probably appropriate for someone of JSP’s public standing, but there are many different types of blogs and some fall in between categories. Some are mostly personal, but occasionally include links to the author’s political or perhaps cultural interests. Some are about work and many are about technological issues; quite a few track the progress of the author’s project. There are also purely “issue blogs” which never contain personal content, and there are those containing a mixture of personal content and commentary which are popular because more influential people have decided that they are worthwhile.

Of late there has been a debate over whether bloggers are setting the agenda by dealing with issues the mainstream media, for one reason or another, has missed. A good example was the controversy over the documents used by Dan Rather in his 60 Minutes programme, which being in a proportionally-spaced font could not have been produced by a typewriter, which was used for this type of communication in the early 1970s. A more recent example here in the UK was that of a blog which published the name of one of John Prescott’s alleged mistresses, who threatened to sue the Sun if it published a story about their supposed affair. Critics of bloggers’ behaviour say that, among other things, they are just looking to get their names in the mainstream media and that they (or perhaps I should say we) “make wild allegations not based on fact and ignore the first law of journalism: that you put allegations to the person you are writing about”.

Another argument against blogs is that they have tiny communities surrounding them and are irrelevant, as with this letter writer in the Guardian in 2005 (in response to a big feature on blogs):

You write that “Samizdata, by some measures the nation’s most successful independent blog, claims around 15,000 different visitors a day”. This compares unfavourably with circulation figures of some 400,000 for the Guardian and 3,360,000 for the Sun. I wish you would stop being so obsessed with blogs - no one in the real world takes any notice of them. Yet you go on about how important they are. They are not. They have the circulation of a small town newspaper and are about as relevant.

My own site, this month, has had 260,496 hits at the time of writing, 66.5% of which are from real internet browsers (from the most common: Explorer, Firefox, Mozilla, Konqueror, Opera, Safari, Camino and Netscape). The others are from bots such as RSS aggregators and search engine crawlers. Admittedly, a fair amount of this goes to my tech blog A Qt Blog, but I’ve been having a lot of interest in articles I’ve written about IT issues which have been linked off some well-read tech sites. It’s true that many of the articles I write don’t get many comments, and also that some blogs with steady readerships get less than a hundred comments per article. Since I enabled moderation, I’ve not had more than 100 comments for any article.

But I don’t think that the low “circulation” figures mean that blogs are irrelevant, any more than low-circulation magazines are irrelevant. As with low-circulation magazines, the contributors may well be from people of influence in whatever field the magazine deals with. They may well be important fora of debate within that field, particularly if those in the field have limited access to the mainstream media and lack the resources to consistently produce their own media; the latter, especially, has been true of the Muslim community over the years (consider the ongoing rising and falling of Q-News). Many of the Muslims I know who have blogs are very active in their local communities even if they are not elders or imams (though some in fact are). Some of them have had pieces published in the print media. Blogs are a valuable way of bringing things to people’s attention (what is being said about a community in the media, in particular, and other things which might affect a given community), of discussing them and co-ordinating responses.

I don’t dispute that much of the discussion which takes place on blogs is irrelevant and is junk: there are a good few blogs out there whose authors post stories about Muslims, for example, and then allow their flock, mostly hidden behind TypeKey names, to let their bile flow. The American blogs’ most famous “coup” allowed CBS’s mistake to obscure the general objection to Bush’s conduct: that here was a young man from a wealthy family whose wealth seems to have got him into a unit which saw no action while the sons of the less wealthy were being sent to fight and die in Vietnam, and whose military record was hardly glowing, who now sends the sons of America’s less wealthy to fight war of dubious legality and benefit in Iraq. The revelation of the forged documents did not detract from that central complaint. There is another major objection to blogging, which is that it diverts its authors from real writing (particularly if they are real writers), and that serious articles posted on them get lost in the archives. Blogs are in no way a replacement for the mainstream media, and I don’t believe anyone says they are; for one thing, they very rarely actually report news and their authors usually don’t have access to archives like Lexis/Nexis. They offer independent commentary and details about events which the mainstream media did not pick up, either because they did not notice or because they did not want to know.

As for whether we “have lives”, the fact that many of us do is usually why the content is so sparse (and why it took me nearly a week to start writing this after the articles appeared and Saracen blogged them). When I was at college, and when I’m out of work, I have ample time to blog; at times like this, I’m either too busy or too tired. The notion that people who form social networks on computers are just nerds who could not cut it in “real life”, this is true only of a minority, and even computer-based social networks do in fact occasionally meet up (and in the case of the computer scene gathering I recently attended, the sterotype of the spotty geek without any social skills doesn’t hold true at all). Even if some of the participants could not find friends any other way, what is wrong with their building a social life in whatever way they can? Whether a blog is about the author’s ex-boyfriends and weight loss or about Linux, stamp collecting or the Palestinian situation, its readership cannot really be compared to a newspaper’s circulation. It is more of a social network, and it may not be your kind of network, but to dismiss it as merely a bunch of inadequates is just to betray ignorance.

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