(Published in the National Post, August 13, 2004)
A vanity press for the demented?
That’s how Erik-Lars Nelson, a former columnist for the New York Daily News, describes the Internet. He once wrote a wonderfully tart piece for the Shorenstein Centre at Harvard University. In it, the newspaper columnist (echoing the view of a lot of newspaper columnists, one suspects) made short work of the Net — and, by extension, the “blogger” culture now pervading it.
Wrote Nelson: “Any newspaper person who has logged onto an Internet news group will recognize many of the contributors at once: They are the same obsessives who write dense postcards in tiny script that covers all available space and then continues around the edge, often continuing with a P.S. on the address side. These are cards and letters the newspapers routinely do not print; the Internet, by contrast, is a vanity press for the demented, the conspiratorial or the merely self-important.”
An international gathering of the demented, the conspiratorial and the self-important took place, we are happy to report, a few days back at a downtown Toronto hotel.
Bearing the unwieldy title of “Exploring the Fusion Power of Public and Participatory Journalism,” the 100 or so demented people in attendance — most, but not all, drawn from the ranks of the newspaper business — were the guests of the Public Journalism Network, the Canadian Newspaper Association and a few dedicated souls from Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
While the day-long event was intended to discuss a lot more than Web logs — the so-called “blogs” that seemed to sprout like weeds during the recent federal general election, and again throughout the Democratic National Committee’s convention in Boston — bloggers and their creations dominated deliberations.
The consensus: Pay attention to the bloggers, because the bloggers are certainly paying attention to you. Thousands of people around the globe, we were told, are becoming bloggers. Why?
Here are 10 reasons I offered up during my presentation. One famous New York City blogger, Jay Rosen, immediately called me “stupid and narrow” — but lots of other self-important conference participants were seen nodding their conspiratorial noggins.
1. Blogs are free. Free to do, free to see. Being free, blogs have started to nip at the heels of mainstream media Internet offerings — which are increasingly (and understandably) moving to subscription-based models.
2. They’re proudly biased. Bloggers don’t play objectivity games — they believe (like most newspaper readers, by the way) that folks are looking for opinion, even opinion they don’t necessarily agree with. Objectivity, in the blogosphere at least, is boring.
3. They’re really easy to access. Forget about the 500-channel, 24 hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mainstream media universe: Blogs offer a lot more choice, by a long shot.
4. They’re the Hegelian Dialectic on speed. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis: Blogs offer readers an opportunity to sample a wide variety of opinion, and then arrive at one of their own.
5. They’re populist. Blogs are by, for and usually about regular folks. In Canada, there are many Web logs devoted to politics — because, let’s face it, politics is showbiz for ugly people. But blogs represent the first real, honest-to-goodness popular uprising since Gutenberg. That can only be a good thing.
6. They have “Google power.” When one makes use of the most powerful Internet search engine in the world, one obtains results from all over the place — the news media, educational institutions, governments. But, increasingly, blogs are popping up in Google (and other) search results, too. Google equals exposure — and exposure equals influence.
7. Specialists are welcome. Generalists are found in the blogosphere, too, of course. But a surprising degree of specialization and expertise is there, gratis, in the blogging world. Media people are increasingly making use of bloggers, as a result.
8. Interactions are welcome. Most readers and viewers suspect where their complaints about coverage or bias usually end up — in the mainstream media’s round file. So they often don’t even bother to write. In the blogging world, meanwhile, criticism, commentaries and queries are not merely welcome — they’re encouraged. That dynamic is what prompts many people to start up their own blogs, in fact.
9. They’re pithy as heck. Unlike the mainstream media — with the notable exception of the newspaper you now grasp in your hands, naturally — which have a tendency to be long, boring and pedantic.
10. They’re rather faddish at the moment. Which raises a question that was roundly mooted at the conference: namely, are blogs the digital equivalent of the pet rock?
Ask Penny Cholmondeley: She’d probably say no. A Nunavut Tourism marketing officer, Ms. Cholmondeley was fired a few days ago because she offended someone — her boss wouldn’t say who — who disapproved of the fact that she maintained an inoffensive Web log at http://pennyc.typepad.com/polar_penelope/
Ms. Cholmondeley found a job shortly thereafter in British Columbia.
But her case — and plenty of other such examples — demonstrate that blogs are read, blogs are talked about and blogs, ipso facto, have increasing clout.
Not bad for a group of demented, conspiratorial and self-important types, eh?