Tim Montgomerie of 18 Doughty Street and Conservative Home was asked about a concern that some people might have about the blogosphere — that people who don’t actually know very much about what they’re writing about can gain a lot of influence. Montgomerie responded by saying that the bloggers that got the most attention were the people who did know something about what they’re writing about.
When I was interviewed for a piece on Radio Scotland last year, I also suggested that the most successful bloggers were people who probably would have been well-known campaigners or journalists anyway (although as I recall, this bit wasn’t used in the broadcast). I cited Iain Dale as an example. His blog is one of the biggest around at the moment, and he was clearly a big figure on the political scene before blogging took off.
Will Patterson then spoiled the whole illusion by going on to suggest that I am one of the bloggers that everybody reads. Well I have to hold my hands up and say that I am one of those bloggers who don’t really know much about what they’re writing about.
Clearly, the idea that “those who do know” are the only successful (or even worthwhile) bloggers is only part of the story about blogs. If it were the case that big names are the only important ones, citizen journalism wouldn’t be seen as important and The Long Tail wouldn’t exist in the blogosphere.
To ask for bloggers to be expert policy analysts misses the big point about blogging, which is that any old Joe Blogs can get out and express his opinion to a wide audience. “How boring,” you might think — and you might be right. I find it absurd that anybody should read my blog. I am only 20 for a start, and I’m a very mundane person. I have almost no life experience and I’m certainly not in any position to be telling Mr X to do y.
But that’s not the point. If you say, “well, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, so why should his opinions matter?”, then you might as well throw the whole idea of liberal democracy out of the window. The great thing about blogging is that it is ordinary people — some more expert than others — who are getting their thoughts out there in the open.
I used to struggle to understand why I like blogs so much while I’ve ended up getting less and less of my news via traditional outlets. Recently it struck me. It is common for people to say that all politicians are lying, spinning or toeing the party line. The reason they do this, of course, is that they do not appear on the news in a personal capacity — they do so as a representative of their political party. Of course they will be expected to toe the party line. They would probably be out of a job if they didn’t.
But the same goes for everybody that appears on the news. If it isn’t a politician it will be somebody representing some other organisation — a pressure group, a trade union, a business, whatever. Even when I or Will P or any other bloggers crop up on the news, it is only in our capacity as representatives of (or experts on) the blogosphere.
I’ll sit there watching the news thinking, “can I really believe this person?” They are all experts in their field for sure. But they are also in their ivory towers, seeing things from their blinkered perspectives. Isn’t it strange that ordinary people — who, by definition, make up the vast majority of the population — are seldom properly represented in the mainstream media apart from in some uncomfortable ‘Speak Your Brains’ segment?
The fact that ordinary people who don’t necessarily have an agenda to push or a party line to toe are gaining some influence should be seen as refreshing, not bothersome. I know I’d much rather read the opinions of ordinary people rather than somebody with an agenda to push. I think most other people do as well. Like I said, I am a mundane person and certainly not in a position to be an expert on anything. But plenty of people still read my blog.
Mark Lawson, in an article he wrote having obviously only ever read about half a dozen blogs in his life, once said that:
At its worst, blogworld most resembles a radio phone-in for leftwing men but without a Victoria Derbyshire or Brian Hayes to interrupt the callers who lose the thread and start to free-associate.
This is part of the problem a lot of bloggers have with the “mainstream media”. ‘Ordinary people need to know their place, and we journalists have to be there to let them know when to shut up.’ So you have an letters page in the newspaper which is supposed to represent the views of the ordinary readers — which it does, but only at the say so of an editor. And you have radio phone-in shows where ordinary listeners are often summarily cut off in their prime.
A lot of the people who phone up a radio station do often deserve to be cut off. But here is another magical thing about blogging. We bloggers are having proper debates. We don’t have to worry about squeezing our point in before the news. If somebody disagrees with us they can simply respond either in the comments or on their own blogs.
Soon enough you find out who knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t. Poorly-formed opinions have to be revised as they are challenged by others. What we have is the wisdom of crowds. Even though many (but by no means all) of us may not be experts, bad ideas soon get weeded out. This is proper, adult (usually) discussion between — whisper it quietly — ordinary people.
That should be embraced, not snootily ridiculed.