Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Point and Purposes

The Internet made the blog possible, but it did not invent it.
Once upon a time when printing and publishing were cheap writers could express themselves in many different forms. As well as the long stuff, they produced essays, papers, edited newspapers and magazines.

Jill Walker Rettberg in her recent book, Blogging (1) claims that the French novelist Alexandre Dumas was the first blogger: ‘he was truly into the new technology of the modern press, introduced in France in the 1830s. Dumas’ first newspaper was written solely by himself, and was called Le Mois, with a tagline that sounds so bloggish it must be in use by some blogger, somewhere: jour par jour, heure par heure (‘day by day, hour by hour’)’.

Dodging the crush
Contemporary writers have, until the last decade, depended in one way or another on the mass media to open doors to their publications, short or long. Such has been the competition for access that inevitably queues form as fortunes rise and fall and as new kids come rolling or skateboarding on to the block.

Agents have queues at their door; publishers have slush-piles of unread scripts. The BBC Scriptwriters grant a ten minute window for every submitted script; what doesn’t impress in that time goes back into the stamped-addressed envelope.

Fees apart, fat or thin, that scenario prevails in the markets for mass media and mass consumption. The Internet, however, has opened other doors. Would-be writers, or established ones, are no longer limited, as broadcasters have been, to ‘wavelength rationing’. They don’t have to line up for judgment, largely by people they’ve never met and are unlikely ever to meet as big publishing companies swallow up smaller, more intimate and often more supportive ones.

Today, one has an idea for a story, a play, an article, an essay, a poem, even a haiku, and one can post it for the world to read, free of intermediaries. The writer is liberated from gatekeeping.

True, though there are ways of checking the numbers out there who key in to the uploaded texts, the writer can rarely be sure that the readers have sustained their interest, read a sentence, a paragraph or the whole piece. That, of course, is also true of texts in print: who’s reading your book, in what way, and to what (if any) effect?

What blogging on the Internet does allow, makes easy and indeed purposeful, is feedback. Uploaded texts can prompt discourse between author and reader which one-way print media or traditional radio or TV broadcasting rarely can.

Quality control?
Resistance to the notion and practice of blogging is an offshoot of a long tradition concerned with standards. Unless you’ve gone through the mill, how dare you seek to bypass those who police quality? The trouble with standards and quality is that they fluctuate and often defy accurate or even fair definition.

Culture is as much about restricting entry as nurturing it; like so much education, it serves to favour the few over the many. It views talent as essentially a restricted commodity, both highly selective and exclusive.

There are good reasons for careful scrutiny of, for instance, citizen journalism; after all, journalism is a respected trade, requiring many skills and ideally preparatory training and experience. Yet few bloggers aspire to be ‘professional’ in the traditional sense of journalism, and very few, if any, have ambition to replace those trained, practised and professionally committed to journalism.

Uneasiness about citizens ‘intruding’ on the patch of media professionals centres less on standards than on economics. As in most other businesses, employers are constantly on the lookout for cost cutting in a labour-centred industry – why pay a professional photographer, for example, if amateurs are happy to get their snaps in the paper for little or nothing?

Yet it is not bloggers who are shutting down papers but competition in and between traditional media industries. A solid case can be made for saying that Internet communication has benefited mass media. A scan of the press indicates an already well established synergy between traditional media and blogging. Newspapers dedicate columns and sometimes whole pages to the comments of bloggers on particular topics in the news. They do it for liveliness, originality and brevity.

A vital role
Further, it is important to recognise and celebrate examples of the way bloggers contribute to our knowledge of what is going on in the world. Reports by Salam Pax from Baghdad during the war in Iraq were individual in transmission and content, but of global interest – because they were issuing from the epicentre of events.

Salam Pax was in no position to report – as professional journalists would be expected to do – ‘objectively’, but the personal in this case was what was so valuable and unique.

Such citizen postings will increase as online readership searches for information, news and views which escape the mediation characteristic of traditional media ownership and control.

While expecting objectivity from blogs is to mistake their nature, other principles that apply to serious mass media reporting should be equally honoured and observed. Bloggers often function as anonymously as Salam Pax, for similar or different reasons, but there are quicksands ahead for those who set out to deceive their audience.

Principles of performance
Sooner or later scams get found out and the backlash can be devastating. Narratives that purport to be real such as the video blog Lonelygirl15 which turned out to be a fiction, scripted and acted out by professionals, invite rejection, censure and disillusionment.

The freedom to be anybody on the Internet inevitably blurs the
line between truth and fiction and between what’s real and what is simulation or simply PR. Trevor Cook in ‘Can Blogging Unspin PR?’ published in Uses of Blogs (2) believes that bloggers, professionals or otherwise, need to maintain trust by affirming ‘fairness, balance, accuracy and integrity’.

Thus if you’re earning a few pounds, dollars or euros from product sponsors, then you must come clean about that sponsorship. Even on the Internet there is no such thing as a free lunch. For most of us, though, blogging is free because we are not reliant on income to finance our messaging.

A ‘common possession’; but for how long?
What bloggers are reliant on is a free field of delivery and access. There have long been fears that cyberspace will prove to be less of an open prairie than it used to be.

Currently, what the late Roger Silverstone in Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis (3) refers to as the ‘otherwise invisible and unheard’ and the blog as ‘a phenomenon to contest the already weakening stranglehold of the national press and broadcasting systems’ remains ‘a platform for public participation’.

Silverstone sees this alternative to mass communication as ‘a common possession’. He envisions a mediapolis characterised by justice and what he refers to as ‘hospitality’ – openness, the acceptance and welcoming of Other, equality of exchange; but he also states his uneasiness about a situation that is ‘constantly at risk both of its own self-violation (paedophile and terrorist networks) and its enclosure (by transnational corporations and political controls)’.

What has scared Netizens in recent years is the threat to network neutrality. In a article (4), media analysts Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney wrote that network neutrality ‘means simply that all Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet’s wires cannot discriminate’.

Pressure to legislate for precedence
Lessig and McChesney’s article is entitled ‘No Tolls on the Internet’. They write that network owners ‘could slow down or even block the websites and services of their competitors…Without net neutrality, the Internet would start to look like cable TV. A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it cost’.

The authors refer to the ‘smell of windfall profits in the air in Washington’ as the phone companies ‘are pulling out all the stops to legislate themselves monopoly power’.

Blog battlers
Alerted to this corporate threat to their futures, bloggers by the thousand, aided by over 700 Internet groups, successfully pressurised the American Senate Commerce Committee into approving the AT & T merger with BellSouth in June 2006 on condition that network neutrality was preserved.

The New York Times commended this ‘limited but important victory for net neutrality’ but added that ‘it should not be necessary to negotiate separate deals like this one’. Net neutrality remains, but so do the ambitions of the corporate sector. As the New York Times asserted, ‘On the information superhighway, net neutrality should be a basic rule of the road’.

Loose wheels on the big-buck tumbrils
Corporate Man has never been hesitant to follow the rule If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them. How many global Internet sites are not in the hands of the big spenders? MySpace passed into the ownership of Rupert Murdoch in 2005 for an estimated £200m.

In the following October Google snapped up YouTube; while Facebook, with its millions of ‘friends’, has been described by journalist Tom Hodgkinson as an ‘extension of the American imperialist programme crossed with a massive information-gathering tool’ and which is commoditising human relationships; success, it would seem, guaranteed (5).

Yet a prevailing feature of the Internet is uncertainty. What goes up usually comes down, and often with a sudden bump; even the media masters get their fingers burnt. Hundreds of jobs have been lost at MySpace. In June 2010 AOL sold Bebo for a sum dramatically less than it paid for it.

David Teather writing on social networking (6) talks of ‘soured investments’: ‘Ever developing applications and a lack of customer loyalty mean social networking can become huge, almost overnight, and crash just as quickly’.

Keep up the sharing
But to close on an up-note: enthusiastic student of, practitioner and advocate of blogging, Jill Walker Rettberg declares in Blogging, ‘People like participating in the media. We like contributing and sharing our ideas, and we’re unlikely to stop now that we have the technology to allow it’.

She goes on, ‘Participatory media which makes publishing available to everyone is like fire: once the cunning Prometheus had stolen the secret of fire from Zeus and given it to us mortals, there was no way for the gods to take it back’.

Rettburg receives ample support from Net guru Clay Shirky interviewed in the UK Guardian by Decca Aitkenhead (7). He argues that those who post – free of charge – their thoughts, views, knowledge, opinions on the Net do so because it satisfies ‘the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness’.

Compared to traditional media such as the press and TV, Shirky says the Internet ‘has removed the barrier to universal participation and revealed that human beings would rather be creating and sharing than passively consuming what a privileged elite think they should watch’.

Islands of civil discourse
This is a hearteningly optimistic point of view, but would need to be considered alongside Decca Aitkenhead’s more sceptical position, ‘bewildered’ as she is ‘by the exhibitionism of online social networking’, its ‘juvenile vacuity’, ‘baffled by the amount of time devoted to posting photos of cats that look amusingly like Hitler’ and ‘a little bit dismayed by Facebook’s revelation of almost infinite narcissism’.

Shirky’s answer is that ‘even the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. And I’d still take the most inane collaborative website over someone watching yet another half hour of TV’. In other words, don’t blame the medium for the message!

Along with other commentators, Shirky recognises that while anonymity can make people ‘behave more meanly’, he remains confident that ‘we are slowly going to set up islands of civil discourse’. His message is, be yourself: ‘We need to set up the social norms which say in this space you need to use your real names, or some well-known handle’. He sees ‘the really big challenge’ is how to maximise the Net’s ‘civic value’.

(1) Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging (Polity Press, 2010).
(2) Trevor Cook, ‘Can Blogging Unspin PR?’ in Uses of Blogs (Peter Long, 2006), edited by Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs.
(3) Roger Silverstone, Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis (Polity Press, 2007).
(4) Lawrence Lessig and Robert W.McChesney, ‘No Tolls on the Internet’,, 13 June 2006.
(5) Tom Hodgkinson, ‘With friends like these…’ Guardian (14 January, 2008).
(6) David Teather, ‘Social networking curse strikes again as Bebo is sold’, Guardian, 21 June 2010.
(7) G2 ‘If there’s a screen to worry about in your house, it’s not the one with the mouse attached’, Clay Shirky talks to Decca Aitkenhead, 5 July, 2010. See Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Allen Lane, 2010).


The author is currently working on the 8th edition of The Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies (with Anne Hill).
Thanks for reading this. Feedback welcome as usual.