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Friday, December 02, 2005

More on blogs

I've seen these in the last few days- one from a democratic socialist, another from a thinking Marxist. To all fellow bloggers, I hope these are of interest/use.

First, Chicken Yoghurt , took an article from The Sharpener from Nosemonkey calledUK blogging: cliques and changes. Yep - yet another article about blogging by some blogger. What do you expect

There has, however, been a noticable shift in the Britblogging world over the last few months, and one which could yet spell big changes for the way the place operates. Noticable, but at first almost imperceptible and quite hard to put your finger on; so - I hope - worth highlighting:

In May, in the first post on this blog, I said that the hope for The Sharpener was that it would “feature people with a broad range of political opinions and writing styles and, through them, act as a conduit for blogging thought and debate”.

A couple of months later Rafael Behr, at the Observer’s now defunct blog, wondered (hoped?) whether “the conversation between and on British blogs could evolve in different direction [to the American route]. One that is, for want of a better word, more polite.”

I then echoed his sentiments and reiterated the aim of this place: “When we started setting up The Sharpener, one of the prime concerns was to try and foster civilised discussion among people with often vastly different political opinions. Rather than childish name-calling and hissy-fits we hoped for rationality, and rather than straw-man distortions of others’ points of view, we aimed to have genuine debate.”

Yet back in February I was not overly impressed with the British blogosphere (still for want of a better word), stating that I hoped us bloggers might start “acting a tad more constructively together to build up proper online networks and sensible debates, but it has to be said that from what I’ve seen so far I’m not too optimistic.” The next day, Martin Stabe - in a now widely-quoted piece - noted the differences between the British and American press (basically the British press has obvious and declared bias, while the US press claims objectivity, meaning there’s more to attack the US press about) and how that might impact on British blogging.

The one similarity between the US and UK (political) blogs that Martin didn’t really mention is that we all like to attack (often only perceived) inaccuracies in the mainstream media (again, for want of a better term). Fisking - the point-by-point rebuttal or demolition of an article by a newspaper columnist in an attempt to demonstrate how little they know and, in so doing, how much better the blogger in question is than the person being “fisked” (and yet paid for their writing), is an ongoing obsession on both sides of the pond.

The basic thing is, us bloggers often write because we feel ourselves to be at least as good, if not better, than those who are regularly paid to churn out comment pieces in the press. Blogging is in part a reaction to the perception of the relatively closed-circle clique of the press, to the apparent nepotism that sees relatives of established journalists get newspaper jobs while genuinely good and insightful writers (of which we could all name examples in blogland) fail to get picked up, and to the perception that the press doesn’t always cover our own particular obsessions in the kind of detail we’d like (hence, perhaps, the large number of “libertarian” bloggers).

Those earlier musings on the nature of British blogging came shortly before Tim Worstall started his weekly Britblog Roundup and long before he got some of us published. Especially since the Britblog Roundups started, we’ve all doubtless become aware of a broader circle of UK blogs and opinions. But still - has that much changed?

In compiling his book, billed as “a comprehensive round-up of the way the blogging community covered the major events of the year”, Tim says he looked at 5,000 blogs of the c.300,000 that are UK based (a very conservative estimate - others have put it nearer 900,000) - and yet only 106 are featured in the finished product.

I tend to have a look at the same 20-30 blogs each day, with a core of 10 or so that I always read.

On The Sharpener, we currently have 24 active contributors, to the extent that to add many more could threaten to overwhelm the place in a classic too many cooks scenario - even though there are plenty of very good bloggers out there whom we have yet to invite (although our desire to maintain political balance means we’re slightly constrained).

This is an inevitability - it is simply not possible to read every blogger or every blog that is produced, not even if you just focus on the cream of the crop. If an average blog post is 200-500 words, how many can one feasibly read in a day? Especially if the inconvenience of work and the real world gets in the way. Likewise, in a 266 page book, it would be impossible to feature many more blogs than Tim managed to squeeze in without severe editing of the entries and dilution of the original quality.

What this tends to do, over time, is create more and more of a closed circle. The better - or simply more popular - bloggers end up reading each other and linking to each other and, increasingly, finding themselves less able or inclined, due either to time constraints or the knowledge that their current blogrolls contain enough good people to find most things so they shouldn’t be missing much, to pick up on newer blogs. Equally, the more people that link to you, the harder it is to notice new ones, or new good ones - especially as the likes of Technorati and the other blog search engines are currently having so much difficulty in keeping up to date and accurate.

For the really established bloggers - the likes of Atrios, Kos or Instapundit - even attempting to dig out new regular reads amongst the clamour of more recent additions becomes such a hassle they have apparently all but given up on updating their blogrolls (although smaller blogs will occasionally get a look-in in posts, especially at Instapundit). I’m almost at that stage myself - the blogroll’s got out of control and needs pruning, plus now that I’m aware of hundreds of blogs, rather than the grand total of zero that I knew of when I started, it is incredibly hard to remember which of the new finds are actually worth revisiting, and so blogrolling. Often I’ve started reading a blog regularly, but taken months to add them to the blogroll as I assumed I must have done already - and I know I’m not the only person this has happened to.

The only way for newer bloggers to get attention (and so involvement in the various debates and the ensuing traffic) from the more established lot seems to be to be nice to the people better/more popular than you in an attempt to leech off some of their glory, or attack the people worse/more popular than you in an attempt to get recognised for the genius you are. So every now and again, once you’ve been blogging for a while or have gained a certain amount of Technorati-based respect from your blogging peers, you’ll find yourself faced with a troll flaming you in the comments, or someone on another blog posting critically about something you’ve written on yours - both in the hope of getting noticed.

This tactic occasionally works - some of the newer blogs I’ve come across in the last six months or so I first discovered thanks to their authors being twats in my comment boxes or elsewhere (and I probably did the same myself a couple of times when starting out). As they start getting more traffic they usually seem to calm down. Higher up the Technorati ranks in the UK blog world it’s really only the “pro-war left” lot who still seem to go in (and be considered legitimate targets in return) for outright abuse and hostility - the rest of us seem to be keeping it calm and rational.

This is, of course, what I was calling for all those months ago. But now I’m not so sure. Is anyone else getting at all concerned that this whole British blogging circle is almost becoming as incestuous as the bloody papers?

Especially since Worstall’s book, which only featured about 10-15 blogs I’d never heard of despite his very best efforts to trawl far and wide, I’ve been suspecting that it’s becoming a bit of a closed circle. I can’t think of (m)any genuinely good new bloggers that have caught my eye in the last few months, and all my regular reads pretty much only link to all my other regular reads. Newer bloggers who regularly read my stuff my start resenting the lack of reciprocal linkage and attention. (I know how they feel from when I started out - and most bloggers on this side of the pond still know how they feel from the lack of any kind of attention most of us receive from US blogs. I’ve used this phrase before somewhere, but it seems as hard for a British blog to break America as it is for British bands.)

The main worry, though, is that I’ve now met a fair bunch of bloggers in the flesh - including a load who politically I doubt I’ll often agree with (our man Blimpish, Scott Burgess, Peter Briffa, the man Worstall) - and every time there’s been this basic level of “Lo! Fellow blogger! Hail, fellow, well met!” where you end up being really nice to each other and finding lots of things to agree about, showing our various political opinions to be rather more moderate and flexible than may necessarily appear on our respective blogs.

Add the Sharpener’s deliberate attempts to foster some kind of cross-opinion dialogue to that, could we soon be heading to a stage of everyone (at least at the middle-to-top end) in the UK political blog world having, *shudder*, mutual respect and stuff? Could we end up having a situation where, on UK blogs, apparent vitriol between bloggers is usually little more than the ongoing Sunday Times Jeremy Clarkson / A.A. Gill abusathons, where friends viciously slag each other off as an ongoing injoke? Are we going to end up with primarily mock-flaming, rather than the real thing?

Our own Jarndyce has suggested - in an email, kind of proving the point that a clique may be developing - that us bloggers “all share some fundamental values: commitment to free speech, political wonkery, scepticism of those in power, a certain degree of intellectual rigour, and so on. So, we probably have a hell of a lot more in common with the blogger next door with hateful views than we do with the patrons of an average pub.”

If this is the case, are bloggers beginning to get out of touch with the rest of the country, as suggested recently by DoctorVee? If us bloggers start seeing ourselves as having things in common, or as being distinct from - say - the regular press, regular political activists and the like, does this not mean we are also going to end up isolating ourselves from the regular British public?

This is the main concern. If we all start meeting up in the real world and communicating via email rather than just comment boxes etc, is this likely to turn us all into some kind of nepotistic clique in just as bad a way as the mainstream press (pretty much) is? This whole obsession with ID cards, 90 Days etc is a prime case in point - in some areas it’s already almost turning into a Britblog hive mind…

Judging by UK blogrolls, a pictoral representation of the world of blogs would probably end up as an insanely complex Venn diagram. But are there a bunch of blogs which don’t appear in any of the overlaps - autonomous blogging sets where people are carrying on very different debates to those most of us seem obsessed by?

In other words, is it really the case that the only area in which the UK blogging world has a major, unbridgable split is over Iraq, as it often seems? Or is there another section to the British political blogosphere where there are far more divisions and heated debates that none of us have yet discovered because we’re all collectively just reading the same group of a hundred or so blogs all the time?

Are we becoming just as clique-ridden and unable to understand what’s really important as any of the people we criticise? And if we are, won’t there be a need for a new group of bloggers to rise up and start criticising us lot? After all, we must be to the national newspaper columnists just as insignificantly irritating as the trolling new bloggers who occasionally crop up in our comments sections.

If so, is this likely to be good or bad? If it’s only the smaller or more mental bloggers throwing their shit around, is that going to make blogs as a whole more appealing or less? Is rational debate between bloggers who show mutual respect most of the time actually going to find an audience, or are the more insane insult-hurlers simply more entertaining? And if we do all show each other respect, and get to know each other better, will this make us all less likely to criticise and correct our fellow bloggers when they - inevitably - sometimes cock things up?

As Jarndyce recently noted, “Bloggers were supposed to subvert* and engage the traditional media, the dead trees, the MSM, the legacy media, etc. etc. — on our terms, not as preening supplicants”. To do this we surely need to maintain independence - not just from the “MSM”, but also from each other.

We all started blogging as individuals, as independent as you can get. Now that inter-blog, cross-party networks are beginning to grow in the UK political blogosphere, we may be able to make our voices heard more by acting as a group - but are our individual voices and opinions being drowned out in the process?

Posted on 11.29.05 by Nosemonkey @ 5:03 pm

To quote Neil from The Young Ones, I hope that wasn't too heavy man. Now from the Socialist Unity website:

Blogging: New Commentariat or New Grub Street? By Snowball

The Guardian on Thursday had an article on the rise of political blogging -in particular on how prominant 'pro-war Left' bloggers seem to be - indeed apparently forming a 'New Commentariat'.

'But what has emerged here is a fully fledged alternative wing of the opinion industry, challenging the primacy of newspaper commentators. All political viewpoints thrive within it, but one has become notably prevalent: the stance generally identified as "pro-war left", of which Harry's Place is an example. It is a line of argument that seems not to have diminished, in stridency or popularity, as the Iraq debacle has worsened.'

As a result most Marxists looking at the 'blogosphere' from outside understandably tend to take the view that bloggers are a bunch of sad, deluded bitter ex-Lefties who sit around on the internet ranting away at the world but doing nothing constructive whatsoever to try and change it. Typical of this viewpoint was this letter in response the next day from Paul Flewers, a Marxist who among other things has edited a collection of essays about the 'Enigmatic Socialist' George Orwell, (which I bought but then infuriatingly almost immediately lost and am as a result still rather bitter about):

'One key feature of internet discussion is just how much of it consists of ignorant and intemperate saloon-bar ranting, as each blogger and respondent rambles on as if he (and it usually is a he) is an expert on the subject and that anyone else's views count for nothing. The weblog phenomenon has done very little to raise the tone of political debate and plenty to lower it.'

Whatever the merits of this argument, and there is a kernal of truth to it, I think it rather misses the main point about blogging - which is that blogging undoubtedly is part of a wider and still ongoing communications revolution. We do not know the consequences of this yet. It is not unfeasible that in the not too distant future almost everyone (in the 'advanced' capitalist countries at least) will have their own blog just as almost everyone has a mobile phone or email address today. Why not? Marxists therefore should not cut themselves off from this wider revolution - just as revolutionaries today do not say, boycott mobile phones - indeed mobiles are essential for the modern revolutionary. How on earth did Lenin and Trotsky manage to organise the storming of the Winter Palace without mobiles?

The creative use of new technology

To me blogging today resembles less a 'new commentariat' (which hints of a new orthodoxy dominated by experts from above) but rather a bottom up led phenomenon which is about the creative use of new technology. A better comparison it seems to me would be to the print revolution that developed in late eighteenth-century Paris and which created what the historian Robert Darnton has called 'Grub Street', the literary underground of the Enlightenment.

This was a world of 'pirate publishers, garret scribblers, under-the-cloak book peddlers, smugglers, and police spies' that emerged as 'ambitious writers who crowded into Paris seeking fame and fortune within the Republic of Letters... instead sank into the miserable world of Grub Street - victims of a closed world of protection and privilege. Venting their frustrations in an illicit literature of vitriolic pamphlets, libelles, and chroniques scandaleuses, these "Rousseaus of the gutter" desecrated everything sacred in the social order of the Old Regime. While censorship, a monopolistic guild, and the police contained the visible publishing industry within the limits of official orthodoxies, a prolific literary underworld disseminated a vast illegal literature that conveyed a seditious ideology to readers everywhere in France.'

In short, there was a profusion of pamphleteering in the run up to the Great French Revolution. There were plenty of dodgy characters around, much of it apolitical and about sex and so on, and most of it was about people trying to just make a living and survive. The comparison with the world of blogging seems to me to be compelling. There are plenty of dodgy bloggers out there, many bloggers seem only too happy to prostitute their blogspace to advertisers and try and make money out of it. Of course, just as there was a lot of money made by publishers out of the explosion in print technology in France at this time - so corporations today are eager to make as much money out of the phenomenon as they can.

Yet, - and this is the point I am trying to make - the new printing technology of eighteenth-century France was used by radical activists to expose and attack the ruling elites of France at the time - just as there are many anti-capitalist bloggers trying to do the same today amid the dross and 'saloon bar ranting'. Marxists should not be afraid of engaging with the rise of blogging - just as radicals in France before the Revolution did not just ignore the potential power of the new print technology. More people reading and writing blogs can only be a good thing in general - particularly if it allows the corporate media to be challenged. In short, the 'pro-war Left' bloggers may well be a new Stalinist style Commentariat. However revolutionary socialist bloggers should see ourselves as following in a different tradition - we should proudly declare ourselves the modern "Rousseaus of the gutter".


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