Thursday, May 05, 2005

Public and personal

In the post below, Giving it away, I am questioning the development in the Norwegian blogosphere, where newspapers and weblogs overlap. There are some excellent comments to that post, and it leaves some issues which need to be addressed. These are
Promotional blogging versus writing for free
Professional versus amateur writing
Commercial agents and ideology based acts
Grassroot movements and mainstream media

This links back to a post on the bloggers getting paid to write about a certain product. Thomas M asks what is the difference between selling yourself for money and selling yourself for a position, more readers and a good note on your CV.

The main difference here is the packaging, and the writer/reader contract. When I buy the newspaper I am aware that I am not buying an independent product, I am perfectly aware that this is produced by a huge corporation which needs to sell advertising as well as papers, and so needs to pamper both the readers and the advertisers. Knowing what I do about the mechanisms of media prodction, the trust I have in the paper is very, very small, mostly I buy it for the entertainment value and to have something to discuss with family and friends. When I read a weblog by a fellow scholar, I trust the integrity of that individual. This trust is not absolute, but in the fields where I know this individual to be an expert, I trust him or her a LOT more than I trust the newspaper.

When the individual suddenly gets paid to promote a particular brand, that trust plunges. The individual I trusted for the integrity and skill, has become just another commercial agent. There are of course degrees of plunging, but still. When the newspaper tries to borrow the trust I have to these individuals, by offering them space within the paper in which to display their skill, their writing becomes associated with the paper, not with their individual expertise. I haven't trusted Dagbladet since it changed formats. This does however not flavour the individual blogger's writing in the same was as the promotion. That is because I am not being fooled, led into the weblog with false promises of free alternative thought, in order to find plugging. To publish in the weblog of is fair, I am not an idiot, I can read the context and they are not pretending anything else than to be part of what the paper offers. Does it change their writing? I am sure it does/will do. But they are not pretending nothing has changed.

Professional/amateur (and offers space to the amateurs, and takes them in under their logo, appearantly in the name of democracy. It is a channel for those not hired, a way to reach a large audience freely and for all - wonderfully in the spirit of the new media.

Newspapers have always used the writings of amateurs. Journalism is a free trade, you don't need a license to write. They used to call good, non-hired writers "freelancers" back when. And they used to pay them. Otherwise they would call it "letters to the editor", and the good ones would be printed. This is a way for to get better writing for less money, and without the need to have somebody reading all the letters and editing them. By picking tried and tested bloggers and offering them something they want other than hard cash, they don't need to treat their writers according to the established rules governing freelancers, short-term employees and steady employees.

Of course, if this is a success, the blogger team can insist on money, or else... I think that may be an interesting development. At that point I think the people who gambled from day 1 deserves to be ahead at the game. But with the current economic climate in Norwegian newspapers, I am not holding my breath.

Bjørn argues very convincingly for his belief in the weblog, and how it will change and expand democracy. As a means towards this end he is willing to sell some ads for Dagbladet, as long as that may save some souls for the cause. More power to Bjørn for that conviction, I say.

Me, I have never been much for convictions. Mainly because I don't think the weblog as such is important. It is a convenient piece of software, one that hit the net at the right moment, just when a lot of people had internet access and nothing to do with it. It is structured in a way that makes search-engines love it, and it is extremely easy to use. Great. But it could have been anything. It could have developed in any direction, and it has. Even as I write this, I know that the meaning of the word "blog" is shifting, away from the tool for the people, towards a tool for the powerhungry. When I talk about blogs to people who really should know better, they tell me that blogger blogs, livejournal, diaryland and other low-tech blogs are just "too common" for them. Not sufficiently highbrow. Why should they read them? They want wordpress or movable type, or at best something programmed by an obscure wizard in a language only he (frequently a male) understands. The blog as a tool for the masses is disappearing, because the word blog is coming to mean a webpage displaying highly informed, political opinions by white men working in unison with the established media.

This means that by focusing on the blog, the ideal of a web-based public sphere slips out of sight. What we need to promote is not just the blog, it is the idea that the net is offering increasing options for sharing thoughts, ideas and opinions. The position of trailblazer is within reach, today, by any net surfer who understands about and how to use a tag.

Last, I want to address Hjorten's post on bloggblogg. This is all in Norwegian, so I'll just quickly sum it up in English. He is one of the politics bloggers, and he feels like he may have sold himself too cheaply. But he doesn't know if that is good or bad for the blogosphere.

I am not worried about the blogosphere. Blogs are a big thing, soon newspapers, television stations, corporations, politicians, multinational companies, voluntair organisations, stockbrokers, presidents and kings will all blog. They have to, it is a too cheap and too good way to get attention online that they can ignore it. Read Business Week and see the writing on the wall. The blogosphere is going mainstream, and it's happening now.

In a very short time the only people who will not be blogging, are the common man and woman. They will be doing something else, chatting, surfing, playing, looking for another little niche where they can express themselves without being drowned out by the organised, professional communicators.

Yes, this is a dystopic tale of the blog. But dystopia is not all darkness. We read stories of the world after the apokalypse not for the destruction, but for the tendril of hope. Men like Bjørn and Hjorten, who actually want to do something good, represent this hope. Academics, who want to make information and scholarship free and available to all represent this hope. Jill, writing herself into the narrative of the web with her talent and beauty, the Terra Nova and Grand Text Auto teams sharing their thoughts and skill, Oslo Girl and Dagens Onde Kvinner relentlessly pointing towards the dark and ugly spots of our society, misbehaving systematically saying what others had preferred was unsaid - these threads shine against the dark backdrop of the powergames played out through, in and around the channels of communication open to us.

I read fantasy for the miracles. I blog for hope.

And that is, perhaps, as close as I come to a manifesto of blogging.


Bjoern said...

Me, I have never been much for convictions. Mainly because I don't think the weblog as such is important.

I agree. But the idea about amateur media is important. Doesn't matter if it's blogs or web magazines or discussion boards or something new that hasn't been invented yet. All of these are just tools that allow amateurs to express themselves in media of their own.

- Bjørn Stærk

Thomas said...

Bjørn, you say it's important to have bloggers (and others) who "express themselves in media own their own", and I totally agree.

But I cannot see how you, writing for an established media institution can, in any way, have the idea of getting more and more amateurs to write in mind! There must be a logic here that I don't see.

Thomas said...

When I say "you", I'm speaking generally, not especially of you.

Bjoern said...

But I cannot see how you, writing for an established media institution can, in any way, have the idea of getting more and more amateurs to write in mind!

And I don't see how it can not .. I'm an amateur. I write. What more is there to it? This is how the whole idea of blogging spread in the first place, not through any Big Campaign To Attract Amateur Writers, but by example. You come across a blog, think "that looks fun/easy", and then "I can do that too".

All that changes when your blog is published on a newspaper site is that you set an example for a lot more people than you could anywhere else. Which means a lot more people thinking "that looks fun/easy" => "I can do that too". Simple formula, but powerful.

Blogging is like the wheel, a tool that carries its own meme with it. Explaining it is superflous. All you need to do is use it where everyone can see. And the more who see it, the better.