Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Blogs

Of new media and new politics

In an otherwise interesting article on the role of new media and the Rudd Government, George Megalogenis (is there a better journalist working today?) writes:

To paraphrase Keating, when the media changes, so does the government. The wireless age marked the transition from Ben Chifley to Robert Menzies at the end of the 1940s. The colour TV age covered the shift to Gough Whitlam in the early 70s and, more tellingly, from Malcolm Fraser to Hawke in the 80s. The talkback radio age saw Howard eclipse Keating in the 90s. Now we are in the digital age, which began in 2007 when the young nerd, Rudd, trumped the old nerd, Howard.

That’s right, but precisely backwards. It is the leaders ability to utilise media that shapes its importance and their own dominance. Menzies was an undisputed king of TV when it first came in, just as FDR was able to make radio broadcasts his personal domain. Talk Radio wasn’t a new technology for the 1990’s, Howard simply returned to it as a medium in which his natural skills worked best, and that drove attention to it. Contra Megalogenis I don’t think that Rudd has made great use of twitter/blogs/websites, however he has at least done a damn sight better than the conservatives, and that matters (Obama’s advisors on the other hand made his website a key element of their electoral strategy).

There has always been a very strong link between journalists and politicians. Not in a biased way, but as a shared interest in the media and medium. Our second PM Alfred Deakin was a journalist & correspondent his whole life, as was Henry Parkes, Chris Watson, John Curtin, Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Tony Abbott. Our current PM wasn’t a journalist, but he spent his years in opposition being available for (if not inviting) media interviews at any time day or night. Just as you can’t be a good carpenter if you can’t handle a saw, or a good surgeon if you can’t weild a knife, a strength in using emerging media forms is critical to political success. I don’t see anyone in the current parliament who has a great handle on the new technology (here I think blogs have more potential than twitter), but Turnbull and Rudd both show at least a keen awareness. (As does Kate Lundy & Joe Hockey) Whoever does, is likely to become the dominant figure of the next 20 years. Let’s hope Abbott has some good new media advisors, but given his twitter account has only 7 (utterly boring) entries since becoming leader, it doesn’t seem likely.

The changing of the guard

Warning: The contents of this post may include blogging about blogging

I’ve always been wary of following that old blogger trope of making regular posts about the state of the blogosphere. For a start I don’t feel much like a blogger, in fact when blogs first came about I actively hated the idea. I always considered myself a writer, sure, but blogs seemed hierarchical societies of the type that destroy politics everywhere. One person posts and a dozen or so laud and cat call out about how wrong their enemies are and how righteous their own efforts may be. Instead i liked getting down amongst the weeds and mud and arguing politics with anyone who would take up the keyboard, on politics forums. Indeed I even ran a forum named ‘political animal’ for a number of years, until its small size and time constraints saw me sadly bid it goodbye. The other reason I don’t consider myself a blogger is that the big difference between blogs and journalism is that bloggers spend a lot of time talking about each other, linking pieces they approve of, and piling on those they despise. As a blogger who’s contributions are yet to be regularly picked up for either purpose, I feel I am still largely outside the blogosphere as a community, and rather just a user of this medium. But it is the way this platform is used that continually interests me.

As regular readers of the (US) blogosphere will know by now, one of the most original bloggers Hilzoy has pulled up stumps. Hilzoy (an academic by profession who posted under a pseudonym) was a blogger i only started reading consistently when she took up posting on The Washington Monthly’s site. Yet her posts appeared regularly and consistently both on Australian and American websites. She mastered the art of long posts, but with enough of a concise summary style to be able to provide something others could quote, whilst not just being a link and snark machine as so many bloggers sadly are. As one who’s posts typically run to four figured word counts, I appreciated Hilzoy as one who could keep her audiences attention on this notoriously fickle medium. One of my great regrets about the blogosphere has been it’s inability (at least within the politically focused blogs) to sustain a number of literary quality writers of significant length. There is of course a good reason for that, such writers are rare, often trained, and such pieces take enough time that you’d struggle to do it whilst holding down a fulltime job and social commitments. Yet across the millions who blog on politics few writers seem to even consider going across that great barrier: the end of the paragraph. Indeed few seem to think a second sentence is a exhaustive effort, and turn their blogs into link-farms. A great service no doubt, and one that only works if you can combine insight and wit into 45 characters, and yet so often it would leave me wondering : just what does this person actually think about the issue. Are they truely supportive, do they recognise the obvious flaws of their own side’s contributions, and do they just see this an issue of sides? We’re smart,they’re dumb/we’re informed, they’re sloganers/ we’re honourable, they’re corrupt/ yadda/yadda/yadda. This type flourishes on group blogs, which to me are even more of a bane in their enforcement of group think.

Some bloggers offer a different service however, take Kevin Drum or Ezra Klein. These guys can run posts into long chunks, but I hesitate to call either writers. They are instead policy geeks, often running on different tracks to the rest of the sphere, and only occasionally talking about the daily outrage. Instead they provide detail, great detail and lots of it. This is I think one of the best and likely longest lasting forms of the blogosphere. Long after all the cool kids have moved on, policy wonks, academics and the serious and committed who would have sent letters to the editor, or published unread journal articles in previous era’s can now have a publicly accessible place for their work. In this area of the blogosphere, merit matters. These guys (and whilst the blogosphere is largely male, Hilzoy again being a cherished exception, such straight science policy wonkery is even more male dominated), are only so good as their data and comprehensiveness. If nothing else, this type of blogging promises a great potential for future politicians to drawn in new ideas or research quickly and accessibly, and I’d like to predict such efforts will continue so long as there is an internet.

bloggingIn between these two extremes, the one liners and the number counters, lie’s perhaps the bulk of the blogosphere. Of hugely varying quality, most of these people probably consider themselves writers of some extent, but unless they can move beyond the paragraph probably arn’t. Some can write journalistic pieces of decent length and insight but feel compelled by the medium to stick to a short style such as Yglesias. Others vary like Andrew Sullivan, who unfortunately whilst doing great work link-farming the Iranian uprising has seen the increased number of posts come at the expense of the longer, more personal pieces which made his blog a daily ritual for me. Perhaps for that reason, I have this time happily sat through his two-week hiatus to work on a longer article for his employer The Atlantic, when normally his absent voice would sour my morning read-up of the blogosphere.

Most however, seem to simply not risk going beyond the short style they see emulated elsewhere. With it’s hyper links and instant updates the blogosphere is a ferocious enforcer of social norms (at least so long as you want some traffic). This not only prevents a potential talent for real writing to come out, it probably goes a long way to explaining why those declining few of literary non-fiction talent have largely stayed away from the blogosphere. It doesn’t pay, and if you don’t adapt, you probably wont be read, so why bother. Yet it is a curious absence. Every invention of better forms of printing and distribution have resulted in significant outpourings of essay type length material. Such a form seems tailor made to the internet with its limitless space. Yet instead the opposite has occurred and we have seem the wits take their work in the direction of twitter and lolcats. Such services have great potential for good (such as seen in the recent Iranian uprising, or around the developed world) but also work to actively destroy language. Such shrift communication changes language from sentences into words. It removes the role of rhythm, cadence and flow. Adjectives are a luxury rarely purchased, and word play reduced to puns that punish more often than reward readers.

Hilzoy’s contributions to the blogosphere will likely not be saved or analysed by some future researcher. In fact the trouble of most of this digital medium is that it will one day be wiped, either from decaying materials or the simple commercial decision to wipe the hardrives and turn them towards something more profitable. But even if her work was not of literary quality, it was amongst some of the best, most moving and educated to be found on the blogosphere and that is to its great loss. No doubt there are thousands if not tens of thousands of wanna be writers and journalists who are ending their education and wondering which way best to turn their time, talents and attention. Whilst the blogosphere may seem a circle-jerk (if you don’t know, dont ask), it still has significant potential as a place to publish and craft ones thoughts. In advice as has been handed down since the beginning of parchment: Writers write. And even if commercial and group blogs may slowly be sucking up the vast bulk of the readership, and veterans such as Hilzoy now moving on (joining the likes of Tim Dunlop and others in the stands), there is a lot of space for new writers to come in and perhaps begin to reshape the blogosphere towards a new style. Early enthusiasm has given way, early limits found, but as Obama said in his inauguration ‘the time has come to set aside childish things’ (taking a line from Corinthians), and perhaps now we can usher in a new adult blogosphere. One that doesn’t spend endless time bashing the mainstream media like a wayward son, and instead works to improve its strengths of real writing, real thought and real communication. Technology has provided the potential, humanity just has to live up to it.

The revolution will be blogged

In a distant time and place, I began a PhD looking at how the internet and related technology was affecting our conceptions of politics and the public sphere. Eventually given the morass and confusion inherent in such a debate at present times (and the chasm between boosters & degrader’s) I eventually, and reluctantly gave up on the project. There is much there to write in the future, but for the time being, simply taking note of how the internet and related technology is shaping politics (particularly in non-democratic societies) is a passing interest of mine. So here’s a few links if the issue likewise sparks your fancy (and as an excuse for my light blogging today as I work towards the deadline for handing in chapters)

Moldova’s Twitter Revolution

The protests began after a conversation between Ms Morar and six friends in a cafe in Chisinau, Moldova’s tiny capital, on Monday, April 6, the day after the parliamentary elections. The elections brought a larger-than-expected victory for the incumbent Communist Party.

Suspecting vote-rigging, “we decided to organise a flash mob for the same day using Twitter, as well as networking sites and SMS,” she said, speaking at a secret location. With no recent history of mass protests in Moldova, “we expected at the most a couple of hundred friends, friends of friends, and colleagues”, she said. “When we went to the square, there were 20,000 people waiting there. It was unbelievable.”

The demonstrations continued into Tuesday peacefully. But later that day, with no response from the Government, angry protesters swept police aside to storm the parliament building and the presidential palace opposite. Fire broke out in one wing of the parliament, and the protesters vented their fury by wrecking computers and office furniture.

“Not only did we underestimate the power of Twitter and the internet, we also underestimated the explosive anger among young people at the Government’s policies and electoral fraud,” Ms Morar said.

And closer to home:

Blogs continue criticism in Fiji

Fijian bloggers have mounted an online tirade against the military regime as the government pushes on with harsh media censorship and wide-ranging reforms.

Frank Bainimarama’s government has silenced Australia and New Zealand’s radio transmitters in Fiji, thrown out international media and imposed tough reporting constraints on domestic media, leaving an information vacuum in the beleaguered state.

In the latest reports, international freelance journalist Pita Ligaiula has been detained and two Fiji Times newspaper journalists were summoned by government officials to explain “negative” coverage.

The censorship has pushed voices of dissent underground, onto several active blog websites that deride Bainimarama as an illegal leader.

What mainstream media there is, has been forced into printing non-news like ‘Man gets on Bus’, rather than just blank holes in protest of the governments censorship.

Whilst there are many out there in the developed west cheering on the downfall of the MSM (mainstream media) and urging bloggers onwards, it is in the developing and third world that the most interesting and democratic use of technology is to be found. The big daddy of them all currently is the site Global Voices online which gives a great overview of develops around the world. If you prefer a more personal voice in blogging (as I must admit I do) then take a ganger at
Ethan Zuckerman’s site ‘My hearts in Accra’. Zuckerman has spent a number of years in africa and the third world assisting the spread of the technology and integrating its use in these communities, and regularly updates with fascinating links. Whilst not always directly on topic, another must link is to Andy Carvin who whilst not blogging much anymore, has been going since 1994! and one of the best sourced writers.

More academically speaking, I would be remiss not to link to Clay Shirky whose book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is a must read for scope and insight on the coming impact of technology on society. Whilst more socially than politically concerned Shirky has emerged as one of the sharpest new voices on the impact of the new technology, without coming across as merely a dot com booster as so many other young writers on the subject inevitably end up. (In fact part of the reason I abandoned the field was the depressing number of utopian pieces that from even the 1980’s predict the coming democratization and liberalization of society due to this technology. Even 30 years later, with blogs and twitters and the like proliferating it still isn’t anywhere like such a scope, and one must imagine, given human nature, never will be.)

But Shirky also (via Carvin) relates one of my favourite episodes above, one immediately brought to mind by the Moldovian case at the start of this post: Nothing Says Totalitarianism like arresting kids for eating Icecream
belarus_icecream

By Andy Carvin: In many countries, flash mobs are often seen as communal practical jokes or even performance art, with hordes of participants suddenly showing up in a public place, doing something irreverent, then vanishing without a trace.

In Belarus, young people are employing flash mobs to push the boundaries of what the government will tolerate in terms of free assembly. Last Friday[May 2006], flash mobbers descended upon a public square in the capital Minsk to gather together and eat ice cream. No rally, no speeches, no sit-in nor march – just standing around and eating ice cream:

If this were almost any other country in the world, standing around eating ice cream wouldn’t even cause the local authorities to bat an eyelash. In Belarus, though, it was treated as an organized public assembly, so plainclothes government agents broke up the event, arresting some of the young participants:

In the west flash mobs are a fun joke. In other parts of the world it can be taken as a serious challenge to the authority and control of the government.

Politics still operates essentially as it has for the last 300 years in the west. Parliament, the Executive and the Courts set the laws and the people form as various mobs pushing and pulling society in an ever expanding bubble past modernity and across the entire globe. The new technology has not changed, nor will it likely change such a pattern. No robot presidents will emerge. But it is at the very least a powerful tool for the dispossessed, the minority and the forbidden to advocate their cause. Like hitting jelly with a hammer, those using the new technology will often find a way around, though as in the first case I linked to, it doesn’t guarantee the safety of any just yet. But we can hope.

Of Blogging and Wordcounts

This (slightly tongue in cheek) comment by Matthew Yglesias has been getting a bit of notice around the blogs (and bloggers love nothing more than talking about themselves)
matthewyglesiasportrait

Personally, I would love a legal cap on the number of words a blogger is allowed to produce per day. I’m privileged to have a job that I really enjoy. But at the same time, I would prefer to write somewhat less—this pace is stressful and doesn’t leave me as much time to pursue other projects and interests. But though I would prefer to write somewhat less, I have a stronger second-order preference to produce a blog that’s competitive with other major offerings on the internet. And over the years competition between bloggers has led to escalating word-counts. The resulting situation isn’t terrible, there are lots of people you should cry for before you get to me, but basically we bloggers are engaged in a red queen’s race where we all need to keep trying harder and harder just to maintain our positions

It’s a fair point. We like blogs because they can pull together a lot of information quickly on a subject of our interest (such as the hardest working blogger : Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly), and for people such as Yglesias or Andrew Sullivan, that same heavy flow of links is expected to come with regular words of wisdom. Both made their reputation through their insights, and the pressure to always be the one with the sharpest & freshest analysis (if not most controversial so as to be linked everywhere) must be intense. This pace is clearly telling, and not always justified as programs like Google News get better and better at sorting links according to preferences.

In some ways though, Yglesias is living within the “new media” bubble that drove most bloggers into the sphere in the first place. They were not journalists, they were not writers, they were bloggers. They challenged and surfed over the much loathed mainstream media, and provided a new service: Intelligent compilation of links, with sharp insight and analysis. But whilst the technology has been fruitful to such a service, increasingly it is a disappointing approach. Too few links within the last hour, and people will skip your site as they go to talk about the latest piece of hot news. Too many, and the quality of analysis clearly suffers. Whilst I still read Steve Benen and admire his work, I see it as less a blog than a compilation of news, and find his analysis rarely gives insight or triggers new thoughts about a topic. Even my favourite blogger Andrew Sullivan has seemed to recently preference lots of links in favour of his often emotionally compelling pieces on Homosexuality, Religion, Conservatism and the public sphere. Whilst his pace is surely less than it was during the 08 election, I almost cheered upon noticing the other day that he had not posted anything that afternoon. Only to find out a few hours later it was just a tech glitch holding up his flying fingers.
There’s a second problem here, and that is that for every hard working talent like Benen who is paid to do such work, there are tens of thousands of blogs out there that just post a dozen links they like each day, in a search for visitors, and yet remain unread. In this, their role is little better than what a program could do. A friend who blogs has a nice term for such sites: Newsbotting.

Searching through the blogs shows that probably half of them are just dedicated to reporting news (why is it a blog then?) and the other half add no more then about a paragraph onto the actual story itself, most of them just quoting it from another news site verbatim. It would seem that many of them are content to rehash news that anyone in the field would know about already, and hope that they will go to their site rather than someone else’s.

It’s this kind of low value reporting that adds to the noise of the Internet.

The idea that blogs were a new fusion of opinion and reporting is fundamentally wrong. People it seems can do either analysis or report/compile well, but not both. In this, I’d like to see us go back somewhat to the old media’s divide. On one side are writers. People whose production is valued by its quality. Its insight, learning, and understanding of the human condition. On the other side are journalists. People whose production is valued by its quantity (of course requiring a basic level of competence). We value the timeliness, the contact, instant compilation of important data, -filtered or unfiltered- so we are aware of what is going on in the world.

Yglesias doesn’t need a production cap, he just needs to remember that he is valued as a blogger for the insight and analysis he offers. Indeed in this he is one of the sharpest out there, and as a wanna-be competitor I often find myself amazed by the breadth of his knowledge and unique but compelling analysis he has. This is why I read his blog daily. We are probably all too tied to the concept of ‘bloggers’ for it to go. The medium has madeth the man I guess. But a re-branding as a ‘writer’ would give Yglesias a better view of the service he is actually offering, and the irrelevance of word counts to justify such a reputation. Less in this case truly would be more.

Mapping the Australian political psyche

Andrew Norton is running a short survey on Australian political philosophies and identity. It shouldn’t take you long(<10 mins), and is better designed than most pol. surveys (though is focused around his own classical liberal attitude). Go help him out if you have the time.

Of media old and new

Let me get this straight: Networks pay professional commentators for their views and insights into the daily political process, gleaned from experience and long list of contacts. One such instance of regular discussion is revealed between the White House Chief of Staff and three senior political commentators for CNN/ABC. And right wing bloggers are angry about this ?

To my mind this goes back to a distinction the Australian academic Jason Wilson noted a little while ago in an interesting post:(Via Margaret Simons’ excellent Content Makers blog)

there are some important, relevant and remaining differences between amateur bloggers and industrial journalists. For me, a big, obvious one is: journalists use telephones.

Bloggers are so used to being outside the bubble, and without connection to the actual players of the political game that they take it as a badge of objectivity. But if these media figures (ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala of CNN and James Carville of CNN/Everything) arn’t regularly connecting and talking with the White House and other political players then just what do the bloggers think they are being paid for by the networks ?

There is obviously a line that could be crossed, and in this case the ire is because all four are closely tied to the Clinton Administration (which is also the origin of the regular call; having been running for around 17 years).But as Wilson noted: Journalists use telephones. And whilst all four are surely addicted to their email, the phone is still the essential tool for their generation in finding out and gathering information. So what exactly is the problem here bloggers?