The plurality of blogs and how they dig into context…

Blogs: exposing the hidden contextsThe Irish Times have published my piece on blogging, written originally in response to Brian Boyd’s article on how blogs can give a biased and misleading view of the events they purport to give witness to. Also at my own site.Blogs: exposing the hidden contexts

Blogging is dangerous, radical and going mainstream, writes Mick Fealty

It has been argued that blogging is both partial and subjective and that its many often- conflicting truths should be handled with extreme caution.

We’ve seen the debacle surrounding the reporting of Liam Lawlor’s death in Moscow. There was also the entirely fictional Associated Press report of stranded citizens of New Orleans shooting at a US army helicopter.

Both demonstrate that the need to be certain of the truth is a major concern for journalists, too.

Of course, it is possible to blog badly, to misanalyse or to mislead, which many tens of thousands and perhaps millions of people routinely do. But they are largely unread. If bloggers are tough on lazy journalism, they are ruthless with fraudulent blogging.

The comeback for an established blogger on pushing a blatantly false line is likely to be immediate, and disastrous. Ergo, good bloggers rise to the top and must work hard to stay there.

So what is “blogging”? Simply put, it is a technology that allows anyone to publish their work online, with little effort and, initially at least, little cost.

Of course, the quality of the “blogging” is as variable as the number of blogs. And the numbers are impressive. In April 2002 there were an estimated 500,000 blogs in existence. At the time of writing there are 21.4 million. The number doubles every six months.

Above all, blogging is about readers who write, who talk, who gossip, and who often expose new, otherwise hidden contexts from under the grand narratives that grow around public events.

Online, bloggers can pick a story clean from the moment it appears. They can track reactions from the early stages of a story through to the analysis stage a week, a month or even years later; often when the mainstream media have presumed the issue is dead.

This capacity to disrupt the normal news cycle is exciting for both the blogger and his audience. Of course, speed is dangerous. But then again, the blogger is not compelled by deadlines to tell the whole story at once.

Rather like a reporter’s notebook, the truth is always emergent, contingent on someone producing another fact or story or challenging the veracity of those already presented.

Since its invention the internet has transformed old hierarchical pyramids of knowledge into flatter knowledge networks. Blogging has accelerated this process by multiplying the number of writers in relation to the number of readers.

At its very least, it gives individuals the means to disaggregate news bundles and the space to think aloud and share those thoughts with others. Personally, I’m more likely to blog to discover what I think of a given subject than to push or propagandise a certain line of thinking.

Through the network of the web bloggers get instant reactions to their pieces from dedicated readers and other bloggers. They are not in control of these reactions, but it does draw them into a community setting. Other bloggers compete to provide authoritative accounts of the context of social, political and economic events.

This collective enterprise creates the capacity to embrace and express complexity in an increasingly multipolar world.

In the US the conversation has moved on. Bloggers have become part of the mainstream, with the largest of them, the left-liberal Daily Kos attracting some 800,000 visitors a day.

California-based Mickey Kaus was taken in house to Slate magazine, owned by the Washington Post, several years ago and, in the biggest deal to date, pioneer blogger Andrew Sullivan has signed a deal with Time Warner to bring his blog inside its own corporate brand.

Significantly, it is on blogger’s terms. “I won’t be running my posts past any editor before they appear. I will continue to write simply what I believe or think, however misguided I may be. I will continue to correct any errors in the full light of day and change my mind if new events demand it or new facts compel it,” Sullivan says.

Analyst David Steven believes this raises important questions about how the news market will develop as it adapts to the very different conditions of the internet. “I think we’re going to see a pronounced shift towards the brand of the writer. Media outlets may find themselves in the position of football clubs, forced to pay higher and higher premiums if they want to keep their stars,” he says.

As Marshall McLuhan once said of television, the medium remains the message. For their part, the mainstream media cannot remain aloof from a medium that speaks directly to its readership, and listens to it.

Collectively, the blogging network possesses enormous positive capacity to expand and multiply that readership. And, in the US at least, it has shown considerable negative power to disrupt and destroy big media reputations.

Blogging can be an interactive form of reliable journalism. It will continue to entertain, inform, enthral and offend. And, just as surely, it will continue to encroach on the media mainstream. But like that mainstream, it should never dispense with the absolute necessity to deal in truth, however fractured, contradictory or various it may appear in the ever quickening time of the Internet.

Mick Fealty is visiting research associate at Queens University Belfast and runs the website

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