Monday, May 07, 2007

What Is a Blog Really Worth?

Are bloggers narcissists(yes, most of them are!), or do they perform an important function?
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)

On two occasions, people have printed out dossiers from my blog and used the contents (my own words) against me, in order to further their agendas. These weren't silly girlfriend-boyfriend spats either; the one related to a charge between myself and a university, and the second, more recent, involved a cycling body. In both cases, I felt that my personal privacy had been abused and violated.

That may seem a ridiculous notion given that a blog is essentially in the public domain. The way I see it, having a blog is a little like having a house. Anyone can drive by, but you expect the frequent visitors to be the people you know, and who know you, and often, people who have been invited. When last did you knock at the door of a random house and feel like you wanted to snoop around? Unless you're a career criminal, it's unlikely. But people are doing that, snooping around our personal things, looking for something they can use.

In both of the above cases the word "slander" was bandied about, but one has to wonder: is one entitled to voice one's opinion on one's blog? Are you allowed to say: "I hate junk food; I especially hate MacDonald's," without fear of retribution? I think we can all agree that blogs are there for the ordinary mortal to provide his or her 5 cents worth. No one can deny that it is damaging to put campaigns of hate on the Internet, and then reinforcing these. But it should be clear that if one day you are complaining about the cold weather, the next about high petrol prices, and the next you're calling someone a w&%nker, it's all just egocentric ranting, right? People who come across these incidental personal meanderings need to relax, after all, that one post on a blog isn't necessary equal to headline news in the local newspaper. Chances are it's not being read by more than a handful of people.

So blogs aren't important? And is that all blogs are then? Egocentric rantings?

Perhaps we bloggers need to realize just how powerful a blog can be, and how mobile and rapid information can be dispersed, often in a highly asymmetrical fashion. What I mean is that if a group decides you've written something they do or don't like, it can be copied and disseminated quickly and with pinpoint precision to all the cave dwellers of a particular tribe. And there, in their monitor-illuminated caverns, deep in the dark, dark night, they might draw their plans against us (that's us bloggers).

Here's an example. A cycling article I posted on a citizen website was copied and pasted without my knowledge at The Hub. Unbeknownst to me, cyclists from near and far began to dissect my comments, and some local forum members (who thought they knew me) began to make remarks on my behalf. Local officials, real people, approached me and remarked about comments made on The Hub, and I didn't know anything about them, though of course I had written the article that had unleashed something of a furor. Because forum members are anonymous if they wish to be (and most are, hiding behind avatars), it's impossible for an outsider to know who is saying what -- thus for me to be seen as complicit wasn't such a stretch.

So it brings us to this very interesting question: if we're being honest (and we are, aren't we?) ought we not to be honest in whom we represent ourselves to be on the Internet as well? It seems to me that plenty of inappropriate content (others might say wickedness) is possible where people can operate in a public domain but not be immediately accountable for their words. And it's happening.

In my case, on my blog I provide my name and contact email, and I am conscious to at least be fair and as honest (without being too honest) as I can be in the public domain. I think it is unethical to be "too honest." In the world you can't go around saying exactly, every single thing that you're thinking. Why should this be tolerated on the Internet?

I know bloggers and people with personalities that are all about "being honest," but most reasonable people feel stung by them, and it is to me symptomatic of immaturity, petulance and short sightedness to function that way, and then rationalize doing so as "being honest." It's also careless and selfish to sting everyone you don't agree with. Should they do the same to you?

When I blog I often post articles that I have posted elsewhere (paid content), less often to merely record meaningful or merely memorable information. But essentially I still feel as though I am just venting/reflecting to myself. So comes as a shock to encounter people I hardly know who stumbled on my blog using Google, who approach me saying: "When are you going to post more on blah blah blah." This happened to me last week while I was having lunch at a shopping center with a colleague. Another friend complained because I'd used a particular word ("organizer") when I'd referred to her! Someone else in the same week also mentioned my blog, and when I said "Leave a comment next time so I know you were there," the answer was that they thought they did.

It turns out that people unfamiliar with blogs think you can type a comment without "posting" it. You have to scroll down and fill in a code -- a spam filter -- and then you can post the comment. Once posted it gets emailed directly, and immediately to the blogger. If the blogger is a technocrat, he might even receive a SMS on his phone, and can respond immediately.

I believe the best control over content, in blogging especially, starts by being honest about one's identity, and writing/blogging from there. My defense, when content of mine has been photocopied and threats are made (with gnarled copies in hand) to sue for libel is simple: It's not libel if it's true, nor if that was my firsthand experience, and I portrayed it honestly, but not vindictively. I think it is easy to gauge the motives and intentions of bloggers. They usually state their manifesto close to their headlines, and their posts in general provide a clear expose of what the person is trying to say, or achieve. Thus it is easy to decide: is the balance of this person's communication positive, or helpful, or malicious?

On my blog I tackle various issues, most are serious themes. I do not make a serious effort to market my blog. I like the relative anonymity. I post what interests me, but try to insert a little wit and wisdom to prevent my few readers (10-20) from committing collective suicide. I also try to keep it visually appealing by posting the best of my own photography, the odd movie review, newsworthy articles, and opinion on current affairs (in particular, Peak Oil and cycling).

I avoid talking about relationships altogether, and when I have made exceptions there has been plenty of bloodletting. My friends often berate me for not merely writing my own thoughts. I've been told I "gloss through the news, I want to see what you're thinking and doing." I'd like to write about my personal life, but it doesn't seem decent to me that ANYBODY and EVERYBODY gets to read it.

I also think it is VERY unfair to a person that is having their personal encounter with you publicized, possibly (and probably) against their wishes. Friends of mine specifically ask me: "Please don't put my picture on your blog." Others want me to. Do bloggers respect these distinctions?

What bothers me, as a blogger, is that one friend of mine (an ex whom I never see now) gets a daily update on where I am and what I am doing, but I feel my blog almost reinforces the distance between us. She gets to "visit" me each day, but I don't have the same push-button access to her world. If I didn't blog I'd expect we'd still meet more often. Now my blog is four years old, and I think I haven't yet touched on 80,000 visits (or is it 70,000, I can never remember).

Meanwhile, there are other bloggers out there who have won awards for their brilliant wit and prose, and get far more visitors than I do. An example is Mushy Peas on Toast ("Mushy" for short). I met her at a bloggers' conference in Grahamstown last year. She has won Best New Blog (2006) and this year, Most Humorous Blog Award. If you have a look at her sidebar, there are links to among others, Mike Stopforth. I've also met Mike. Both Mike and Mushy were judges in South Africa's recent Blogging Awards, and both won awards.

It's my opinion that the blogging community in South Africa is so miniscule, that even when a few people (possibly a hundred, possibly a few hundred, probably far, far fewer) poke around the Blogosphere we make a big deal about it. That's how I make sense of that fact that Mushy Peas managed to win any awards. Mushy Peas is keeping her identity under wraps, and she must: she portrays herself on her blog as a perpetually inebriated sex-starved vamp, but then also complains about stalkers. While some of her writing is witty, the content itself is unashamedly depraved and vulgar. It's difficult to provide a sample as one would probably have to fill it with %$#s.

Recently interviewed in a recent Sunday Times Magazine article (written by Nikki Temkin), Mushy said: "There's always drama going on in my life...[And] some of the best blogs are written with an audience in mind..." What bothered me when I met her, was that since her blog is based on her daily "hook ups and f**k ups," in order to have an interesting blog, she must basically cultivate (farm, nurture, promote) an image. That means she must maintain a debauched, dysfunctional lifestyle for the sake of the popularity (entertainment potential) of her blog.

This is the blogging equivalent of the classic Who's-the-Boss dilemma. Remember the sitcom? The dilemma is this: If Angela (who has a crush on Tony) ever marries Tony (the housekeeper), the tension (and the sitcom) will be gone/resolved. So keep suggesting trysts, keep things on the boil for far longer than is normal/possible/natural. So is Mushy Peas a South African version of the wannabe blogger-as-celebrity (there are one or two abroad)?

Mushy Peas, for all her chaos, is, I suppose, an unusually attractive netizen. Still, celebrity might be more easily (and better) achieved through modeling, acting etc. Blogging, (with all that half hearted anonymity) is all contrivance, especially with suggestive photos in national magazines. Mushy Peas has about double the daily visitors I get, and all leave comments. Even so, she is only at 160,000 hits (being the Best Blog and all) and her blog is about as old as mine.

Nevertheless Mushy is determined to ride her wave of celebrity to the very end. She has a novel in the works. If it resembles the daily drunken debacles she pursues for her blog, I have the perfect title: Mushy Peas on Vomit.

A good example of a blog that provides a useful service, is informative and functional is Low Impact Man. Perhaps one of the reasons it is such a good read is the blogger is also a published writer. His purpose-filled blog records a disciplined journey that is replete with hard won insights. So this is a great resource, a great example of What-Blogging-Can-Be. Right now the world is facing the depletion of global energy resources. Many writers expect the spectacular growth over the last few years to turn. We're facing an uncertain future, and possibly an austere one. Bloggers may yet be able to inspire communities with innovations and inventiveness, even from faraway countries. But will they?

Meanwhile 200 million bloggers have ceased posting, and the BlogosBalloon overall appears to be tapering off, and heading toward Deflate Mode.

If bloggers are to add any value to the internet in the near to medium term, and make any impact on the media machine, we need more credible writers, prepared to be who they are, write what is worth caring about, and being willing to back what they say. This other game of charades that bloggers are playing, needs to gain more purpose, and dignity. Until bloggers grow up, and stand for something, the blogosphere deserves to be ignored and pilloried.

Also read:
Blogging made me a monster

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