Warning: This is a navel-gazing post about blogging, and they are the worst

First of all, I am so sorry sorry sorry for writing this post. I thought I had grown out of writing about blogging, but it’s just a bad habit; an itch you have to scratch. Clearly I have had a lot of thoughts about blogging since whenever the last time I wrote about it was. As such this is an embarassingly long and rambling post. Apologies. Anybody who reaches the end gets a sweetie.

Guardian Unlimited’s new blog, Comment is free, seems to have opened a bit of a can of worms, and once again bloggers are wondering what the hell a blog actually is.

As a starting point, here is an interesting discussion at Europhobia about it all. There are lots of interesting points there.

There have always been those who maintain that the ‘mainstream media’ simply can’t blog; that it goes against the whole idea of blogging, which is to give the little guys a voice. Nosemonkey says that Glenn Reynolds is not a “proper” blogger, even though he made his name by blogging!

Reynolds, as far as I’m aware, makes a packet out of Instapundit. In my eyes, that makes him a good businessman using the blog format as a means of delivering his product, not a blogger.

This reminds me a lot of the recent minor hoo-ha when Ricky Gervais decided to start charging for his massively popular podcast.

“They have not clue on the subject of podcasting. It’s supposed to be FREE. It’s supposed to rival radio. The Idiots. Rick, steve, karl, if your reading this, CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’VE AELIENATED YOURSELFS FROM THE PODCASTING COMMUNITY!!!!’”

(I don’t mean to compare intelligence or writing standards here. Of course, Nosemonkey is much more thoughtful.) I guess you could ask whether Ricky Gervais was even part of the ‘podcasting community’ in the first place, given that he’s not a ‘little guy’.

I think a distinction needs to be drawn. There is the blog (or podcast) format. They are formats in the same way a newspaper or a radio programme is. The difference between the latter two and the former is that it is much easier for a ‘little guy’ to have a blog than it is for him to have a radio programme. But does that mean that ‘big guys’ should be excluded from blogging? I don’t think so.

I broadly welcome MSM attempts to step into the ‘blogosphere’. Of course, if they do it badly, as many do, they risk being ridiculed and, indeed, alienated from the community (I want to stress community; more on that in a minute). But if a ‘big guy’ does blogging well, it can have many advantages. Isn’t that why Tim Ireland tries to get MPs blogging? What is so inherently wrong with a ‘big guy’ blogging? Why should we scare people off just because they’re a ‘big guy’? Isn’t the conversation to be welcomed?

I also don’t like the idea of excluding people from the ‘proper blogging’ club just because they make money out of blogging. What about people like Jason Kottke? Boing Boing looks like it makes a packet, and while it may not have the same approach as a ‘little guy’ personal blogger, I think it adds a lot to the blogosphere. If I was asked to write an article for a newspaper I would do it (infact, I have done it, but it wasn’t published — the bastards!). And I tell you, if I could make money out of blogging, I certainly wouldn’t say no, and you probably wouldn’t either.

I do like some MSM blogs. Not very much, but I do like them. I guess it’s true that if you wanted to read an MSM viewpoint you would just read the normal website. But I like the conversation aspect of the blogs and the MSM can sometimes pull this off. For instance, I think the BBC were very brave to take such a liberal approach to comments on Nick Robinson’s blog.

And this is perhaps the issue with Comment is Free. In the comments of my previous post about Comment is Free, Simstim put his finger right on it.

I’ve yet to see an article author get down and dirty in the comments and there’s a distinct lack of linking going on in the articles as well as in the comments.

The problem with Comment is Free is that it does feel a little bit like The Guardian are hopping on the bandwaggon a bit. It could be a genuine attempt to have a conversation with its readers, but as things stand it’s just the same old commentators with a little comments form at the bottom. A-woo-hoo! (Having said that, it is early days for Comment is Free, and there does seem to be a reasonable amount of discussion in general.)

That brings us onto the community element I mentioned earlier. Above, I metioned the need to distinguish the blog format from ‘little guy’ bloggers. To me, comments are one of the major features of the blog format. But there we get ourselves into such trouble. Blogs generally involve a list of posts displayed in (reverse) chronological order, but this doesn’t differ much from a CMS like that used by, for instance, At Ease, which I wouldn’t call a blog. I have heard some say that RSS feeds are a distinguishing feature of blogs, but that is nonsense because loads of sites, not just blogs, use RSS feeds.

So that, I think, leaves us with one thing to point the finger at: comments. Still no go I’m afraid. Bloggers that do not have a comments facility may be criticised for not allowing discussions on their patch, but is Normblog not a blog? (Norman Geras, being an academic, probably counts as a ‘big guy’ as well — the horror!) Bloggerheads, if my memory serves me well, was quite late in getting a comments facility, but it definitely always was a blog. Infact, Tim Ireland is practically a cheerleader for the whole idea of blogging. Geras and Ireland have always generally been involved in discussions, so what’s the big fuss?

It’s easy to get bogged down in these issues, but it is really an irrelevance. While we may all have our own ideas whenever we visit a website, there is no hard-and-fast formula that makes website x a blog and website y not a blog. But why bother? If somebody is trying to reach out and attempting to have a conversation, it doesn’t matter whether they are doing it on a blog, a plain old website or with smoke signals.

Something else to consider is whether or not bloggers are in a bit of an ivory tower just like the MSM? I don’t mean that bloggers are part of some kind of privileged elite, although I think a lot of the most popular bloggers out there may well have made a name for themselves whether blogging had been invented or not. This is simply because many of them are such great writers and activists, and it’s just that for us, sitting here in the early 21st century, blogging is the most convenient and efficient way to get your message out.

But I don’t just mean that; I mean that bloggers may be out of touch with the public as a whole. I think because of the nature of blogging — having debates and arguments and so on — you have to be a clear thinker and a good writer in order to be noticed. Bad writers are ignored, and they eventually get bored of being sidelined and disappear. It’s like a survival of the fittest.

But we should also be wary of the idea that there is one massive ‘blogosphere’. Rather, there are several mini-blogospheres. I and others in this mini-blogosphere know of blogs like Europhobia, Chicken Yoghurt and Tim Worstall. But in a parallel mini-blogosphere, doctorgee who writes about train sets will have his own different big-name train set bloggers to look up to. JonnyB was right when he wrote on Comment is Free:

British bloggers write about their cats. And their favourite bands. And the bloke they shagged last night who they’re not really sure about but are secretly desperate to get a call from. And the bad meal that they had in the restaurant down the road. And the horror of supporting Charlton FC. And finding their drunk neighbour crawling around on their roof.

Some of them write about politics and economics and technical IT stuff. I know these get a lot of publicity, being the kind of things that people who write newspapers are interested in, but you really do have to get out to the world at large a bit more.

Being an MSM site, Comment is Free is attracting its fair share of participants who are not part of the ‘blogosphere’. Some are downright offensive about it. I read an article on The Scotsman website about whether or not some regular feature or other should be turned into a blog or a BBC-style ‘have your say’ section. The published responses suggested a collective, resounding no. Ironically, they were having their say. Don’t they see the irony? Ho-hum.

Despite giving the benefit of the doubt to MSM blogs, the main reason I read blogs is because I want to hear opinions and discussion from normal people, little guys. Some people may dislike this. Here’s one from Comment is Free by chpm:

Personally I find blogs to be just more vanity e-publishing. They can be amusing for a bit but I would rather read a well written article in the Guardian or Spectator that presents a coherent set of ideas marshalled into a cogent piece with wit, a beginning, middle and end.

And a rather more direct one posted at Robert Sharp’s blog:

You sad ****. Why don’t bloggers get a fucking live and walk out into the sunshine once in a while? You will never, ever matter one billionth as much as even the least-read newspaper, magazine or least viewed tv programme.

Leaving an angry comment on a blog is a strange way of showing how little blogs matter. Never mind though. I don’t understand what some people find so offensive about the idea of people expressing themselves or having a discussion. And I’ve never really bought the vanity publishing idea. Maybe it’s true up to a point, but there are far easier ways to be vain. Have they never seen MySpace?!

I do think that sometimes there is an awful lot of hyperbole about the potential of blogs though. There is the question of whether or not bloggers can make a difference in the long run. It’s usually framed around the idea that bloggers should somehow be claiming scalps left, right and centre. I’ve made my views on that clear a few times (in short: I don’t care). It is a slightly annoying aspect of the whole debate about blogging.

Tied in with this is the idea of citizen journalism. It would be a bare-faced lie to say that all bloggers are citizen journalists. I’ve never gone out and investigated anything in my life! Nevertheless, citizen journalists do exist. Some think that this means that bloggers are replacing newspapers. This is just nonsense.

The fact is that there is a two-way relationship between the MSM and bloggers. It is the relationship that is important, not whether or not bloggers are usurping the MSM. We see this relationship in the way that some newspapers are reaching out to bloggers, for instance with The Guardian regularly publishing a selection of thoughts from the blogosphere. There are also the instances when BBC News or Sky News ask viewers to send in photographs and videos of a big news event — we saw this with the London bombings. Bloggers may rely on the MSM for its stories. But by the same token, the MSM is increasingly relying on ‘little people’ for its stories.

Today Oliver Kamm wrote about blogging and how superior the MSM is (now that he is part of the MSM, of course). Longrider sums it up for me:

While it’s true that comment on blogs is driven by stories found in the mainstream media; as, indeed, this is; it provides a platform for two way comment that a newspaper lacks…

The advantage of blogging is that it enables people who would not normally gather together to meet virtually and exchange ideas and if necessary, tactics. Liberty Central is embryonic, but stems from this idea. Whether it will change the face of British politics is moot…

For me, just the fact that blogging gives people — any people — a corner on the internet where they can communicate with each other and express their views is enough for it to be a great thing. Sometimes I think it’s absurd that the views of somebody like me — a fairly mundane 19-year-old, generally lacking in life experience — should have any kind of importance whatsoever. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t I have a voice? The complete ordinariness of me surely makes me all the more qualified to have my say?

Along with wikis, it’s the realisation of the idea of the read / write web. Last year Mark Lawson sneered about blogging to Tim Berners-Lee, who replied that it was almost exactly what he had in mind when he invented the world wide web!

In short, this is my bit of the web, so why shouldn’t I have it? That’s why I’m constantly tinkering with the design and format of this blog — because it’s my little patch and I want to experiment on it and so on and so forth. Hence the recent botched attempt to shove everything I’ve ever written into six categories. (I ditched that idea because it almost made it look like I was saying I was an expert in those subjects, which I’m not at all.) And so on.

I’m not sure which ‘mini-blogosphere’ I fit into (although I probably read and engage with politics blogs the most). I don’t know why people visit this blog. And my visitor figures aren’t astronomically high, I will never have the influence of newspapers, and therefore I probably won’t make much of a difference to the world by having a blog. But as far as I’m concerned, all of that doesn’t matter. Bloggers are merely expressing themselves — and what is wrong with that?

What I can say with certainty is that reading other people’s blogs has opened — and sharpened — my mind tremendously. This window into other people’s lives — reading about their opinions and the oddities in their lives and hearing them explain them — has educated me a lot, and I am grateful to all the bloggers who let me do that. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I think it’s great.

What is my overall point then? I think that we should all stop fussing over what is or is not a blog. Whether a blog has a comments facility or not; whether the viewpoints come from ‘mainstream’ ‘big guys’ or ‘little guys’ (maybe this is something I should have followed before I started writing this dinosaur of a post!) — we should just sit back and enjoy the discussion. Because that’s what it’s all about, right?

I updated this post (tidying up and expanding arguments) on 19/03/2006.


  1. The doctorthinks that they can adapt it to their purposes. I’m not convinced yet though. For the same reason that police authorities can’t do this, so it’s true that newspapers can’t either. A lot of journalists, in particular, don’t like the ‘line-by-line’

  2. This on blogging. (Even though the good doctor quotes me to disagree with me and now I’m agreeing with him – but that’s part of the joy of such a discursive medium: we get to change our minds daily based on new arguments and information. Hurrah for blogging!)

  3. Good post. It expands on my thoughts on Kamm’s piece. Almost without exception, the mainstream writers are expressing contempt and pouring scorn. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing, which is what this is. Vanity publishing is entirely different and if they did their research, they would realise this.

    Some of the greatest authors started as self-publishers. It is nothing to be ashamed of.

    Blogging, for me, gives me the discipline to write each day – and each time that I do it, I hone my craft. Therefore, it is a good thing.

  4. If there’s a serious problem with blogs, it’s that bloggers end up believing that they have far more influence than they do – as do others (see this Guardian article from a while back). As a result, when it finally dawns on us that no, we’re not actually going to overtake newspapers and television, and don’t matter all that much anyway, we end up feeling like twats.

    As I said over at Europhobia, the aims behind blogging were and are laudable ones. But most of it is crap, by its very nature.

  5. Er, don’t know quite what happened to that link there – it should say “see this Guardian article” in front of “from a while back”. See, I didn’t even have to realise the limited influence of blogging in order to feel like a twat…

  6. Good piece mate. I’ve written something for Comment is free along the same lines… though to me the issue isn’t what a blog is, but rather the nature of the beast and whether the medium is being over-hyped to ‘change the world’. I don’t know if they’ll publish it, but I wish I could re-edit it to link this post as well. I will mention it in the comments section though.

  7. Oh how we humans like to attempt to pigeonhole and categorise the world in order to make sense out of madness. Thing is, I’m not convinced that it’s always the way to deal with the world.

    thehighrise, for example, is only a blog insofar as I use a weblogging tool; and I use that purely because it’s more convenient than messing around with FTP software.

  8. Britblog Roundup # 57…

    Welcome once again to the Britblog Roundup, that collection of your nominations of the best from these isles this past week. You can send entries for nexrt week’s to britblog AT gmail DOT com. One comment on The Guardian’s little…

  9. Its unsurprising that the ‘Comment is Free’ generated such a wealth of comments, but navel-gazing is hardly the preserve of bloggers.

    What amused me about the hilarious comment you mentioned over at my site, was that there was barely time to compose a witty and crushing demolition, before about three other people came to my rescue.

  10. i don’t know about the UK blogosphere – only follow a few but in north america the blogospere is very diverse and vibrant……..the mainstream media in the US and Canada hardly covers unwelcome news beyond the spin of official talking point handouts. Some are excellent in analysis and done by people who are so much better informed than many hack print media journos. Whats more, spineless politicians are starting to take note and waking up to bloggers – obviously one follows the blogs that one agrees with – making comments is not necessarily an egotistic pursuit but many times it attracts informative responses from other commentators and bloggers themselves.

  11. All of what you say.

    Plus, I think a big shortcoming in the Guardian’s Comment is Free is that they have not allowed for trackbacks.