TCS Daily


Shadows and Blog

By Perry de Havilland - October 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Blogging is a hot topic these days and grandiose claims are being made for the growing throng of on-line micro-journals.

 

Weblog or "blog" websites have become a social phenomenon, rather than just an online format. They are part of an interconnected community called the Blogosphere that works in ways other on-line formats such as websites or forums do not. Blog articles are often referred and linked to by other blogs, proving a system of peer review, referral and filtering which is of key importance. It is this emergent quality of networked referral and critique that makes the blogosphere more than the sum of its parts and functionally different from the rest of the Internet.

 

On the face of it, a blog with a public comment section (which most have) is rather like an Internet forum and many IT professionals when confronted with this new upstart craze just dismiss blogs as "funny looking forums." Yet in reality a blog is significantly different. The blog format assures that article written by the blogger will always be more authoritative that the comments added by readers underneath it, standing at the top of a qualitative hierarchy with the comments clearly in a supporting role. If forums are about everyone having his say, blogs are about the blog's owner expressing his opinions much like a newspaper editorial, and others remarking on them via the comment system much like "letters to the editor."

 

Much nonsense has been written about blogs replacing "old media journalism." Let me make it clear that blogs are not in direct competition with reporters and the media empires that employ them. We are evolutionizing journalism, not revolutionizing it, because blogs are primarily about opinion, not reporting per se. As blogs become more ubiquitous globally, we may see more on-the-spot blogging reportage like the famous "Baghdad Blogger" incident, but at least for now, blogs do not have embedded reporters with the 1st Armoured Division nor people on the scene investigating kleptocratic shenanigans within the European Union.

 

No, what political and general commentary blogs are about is editorializing the events of the day -- events brought to the bloggers attention by the established media. But if blogs cannot replace newspapers and their reporters, what they can do is change the way people read the established media because what blogs are in direct competition with is media editorial content.

 

It is these characteristics which are making blogs of rising importance in an increasingly information-rich environment. As more data about the world are being piped cheaply into homes of the expanding global middle classes, comes the realization by many that the post Cold War world can not be fitted into the distorting Left/Right, Labour/Conservative, Democrat/Republican continua used by the small number of editors and reporters who try to filter the news we receive by not just reporting it but telling us what it all means. The "ecological niche" that blogs are filling is for a diversity of views on how to make sense of events because received wisdoms ring less and less true to more and more people. It is no accident that the number of blogs increased exponentially after September 11, 2001.

 

What makes blogs compelling is that they speak with the authentic voice of the writer, rather than his editor or shareholders or voters or customers; the blogger is the editor and has no shareholders or voters. Back in 1999, a group of IT savvy people in the United States wrote the influential Cluetrain Manifesto, pointing out that the Internet was heralding the "end of business as usual" as information-rich customers learn to see through the information pollution of corporate-speak PR. Blogs are the very embodiment of what Cluetrain was about: a networked ad hoc on-line militia bringing the end of disinformation, be it either political "spin" or commercial PR.

 

Recently the London based think tank, The Adam Smith Institute, set up a blog in order to editorialize the issues of the day, enabling it to react fast to events whilst speaking informally, directly and globally. This is an example of blogs starting to "go professional." Companies in the larger commercial world too are starting to realize that as the credibility of their PR efforts come increasingly into question, blogs provide a way to speak directly to customers who are crying out for real information and dialogue. This is particularly true during crisis situations in which honest and immediate information can go a long way to generating understanding customers rather than enraged ex-customers.

 

Forward-looking companies realize that credibility and immediacy have considerable value and it makes sense to say it the way it is. That said, any company turning its blog over to an old-fashioned PR department and filling it with corporate-speak is in for a rude awakening when it sees what that rolling peer review called the Blogosphere has in store for it. The same applies to blogs set up by politicians: it is not enough to have a blog, you must write credibly and authentically, because not only will other blogs see through you, they will tell the world about it. Contrary to what Hollywood agents say, there is indeed such a thing as bad publicity. Bad blogging is worse than no blogging at all.

 

For this reason, although I am a blog evangelist, it is clear to me that a blog is not for everyone. For example, although some professional politicians have set up blogs, I suspect the first high-profile self-impalement due to some injudicious remark will see blogs by elected officials quietly fade away as the party whips and hierarchy realize the potential for archived blogged remarks coming back to haunt the author (and remember, Google caches do not care that you took the article down later). To be blunt, any business such as democratic politics which requires grave economy with the truth and promising the unobtainable is not going to find blogging a happy experience in the long run. Politicians are not the natural friends of commentary bloggers, they are their natural prey. Similarly, some companies will never have the necessary corporate culture to actually let their employees talk to the public without surrounding them with a deadening phalanx of PR consultants and lawyers who sanitize every word they type. Just having a blog is not enough... you must allow the writers to blog correctly.

 

Blogging is important and is going to become a great deal more so as markets, media and politics adjust to the realities of an information-rich and increasingly on-line public. A blog is far more than just a format; it is a social phenomenon whose significances have yet be written. I suspect it is going to have a great deal more impact than some people think. Blogs may come and go like mayflies but quite a few of us are in it for the long haul, particularly as more group blogs appear, which for obvious reasons are easier to sustain in the long run that one-man-band blogs. As more commentary blogs appear to replace those who drop out (and then some), the Blogosphere will become harder and harder to discount, as currents of opinion and meme flows form beyond the ability of big government or established media to "manage". If you doubt me, just ask Trent Lott.

 

Perry de Havilland is chief editor of the Samizdata.net blog, an editor of White Rose blog and a partner in The Big Blog Company, which provides consulting to companies interested in the commercial application of blogging.
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