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Edition 7GV SUN 06 JUL 2003, Page Culture 51
Rise of the virtual soapbox;Doors
BRENDAN O'NEILL
FEATURES

 


Weblogs are encouraging ordinary people to stand up and be heard -
but, asks Brendan O'Neill, could they actually redefine journalism?
They are everywhere am-ong us. They intend to tear down the world as
we know it."
The American journalist Jonah Goldberg is not writing about
cyberterrorists, computer hackers or Nigerian spammers, but about
web- loggers, the authors of the latest big thing to hit the web.
If you surf the net regularly, the chances are you will have
encountered a weblog by now. These websites, maintained by armchair
pundits worldwide, act as a virtual soapbox for people to distribute
their know-ledge and opinions, without need of an editor or a
publisher. Consequently, blogging has been hailed as a publishing
revo-lution, set to transform our understanding of the world and to
redefine journalism.
Weblogs have been around since the late 1990s, but have only become
a fully fledged phenomenon during the past year.
There are now 500,000 blogs online, according to the tracking site
Blogdex (www.blogdex.net), while Blogger (www.blogger.com), a
provider of idiot-proof software for setting up weblogs, claims that
1,000 new would-be opinion-formers flock to its site every day.
The choice of topic is already bewild-ering. There are thousands of
predictably awful "Dear diary"-style musings; blogs for news and
comment, war and peace, diet and disease, cats and dogs; blogs about
blogs; and, no doubt, blogs about blogs about blogs. There is even
www.
thehomelessguy.net, apparently written by a fortysomething man who
lives on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, and updates his site
from his local library. And beyond the personal sites are the "big
bloggers" - cult commentators who write about the hot topics of the
day and command thousands of loyal readers.
Could such sites threaten the traditional media's stranglehold over
the dissemination of news and ideas? "Blogs have entered the
mainstream," said Glenn Reynolds, an American law professor who
publishes the popular www.instapundit.com.
Reynolds, one of the most influential of the big bloggers, claims
blogging has rejuvenated journalism - "The term correspondent may go
back to its original meaning of 'one who corresponds', rather than
'highly paid face with good hair'," he said. "Bloggers are faster
than the traditional media, more willing to link to other people's
reporting, which big media sites hate doing, and quicker to offer
corrections."
Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com), the Sunday Times columnist
and another of the big bloggers, has written of a "blogging
revolution" that could soon transform "how journalism functions in
our culture." Do these claims stand up to scrutiny? For all their
innovation and style, many blogs, even some of the "big" ones,
recycle existing stories rather than generating editorial content of
their own.
Reynolds provides an example of a blogging "exclusive": "Laurence
Simon (amish.blogmosis.com) recently discovered that, even as the
Republican senator Orrin Hatch was saying that the computers of
people who download copyrighted material without permission should be
destroyed, Hatch's own website was using copyrighted (computer) code
without permission." But is this investigative journalism in the
tradition of the net newshound Matt Drudge (www.drudgereport.com), or
simply an eagle-eyed blogger spotting a discrepancy on a politician's
website? Plagiarism is also a problem. A popular left-leaning
political blog, www.agonist.org, which had up to 118,000 page views
per day during the Iraq crisis, was exposed for providing unsourced
and seemingly exclusive insights into the coalition campaign - taken
word for word from the commercial intelligence company Stratfor
(www.stratfor.com).
While blogging may indeed be a publishing breakthrough, few
practitioners make any money. William Quick, who claims to have
75,000 readers at his site, www.
dailypundit.com, has threatened to quit unless he starts to make
hard cash. He foresees a time when blogging could become a
money-spinner - but only for the select few. "Some combination of
advertising and increased writing assignments will permit a small
minority of bloggers to make money," he said.
Even if profits are not about to be wiped out, the mass media are
sitting up and taking notice. The anonymous author of
www.dear_raed.blogspot.com, published in Baghdad and one of this
year's most talked-about blogs, has been given a column in a national
newspaper. Journalists have also praised bloggers for keeping a check
on the media's excesses: Sarah Baxter, of The Sunday Times,
congratulated the London-based www.belgraviadispatch.blogspot.com for
disproving the widely reported claim that a member of the Bush
administration had publicly admitted that the war in Iraq was all
about oil.
So, is blogging the noisy pursuit of diary-writers or a journalistic
revolution? The answer is a marriage of both extremes. There is a
danger that the hype about blogs can blind us to what is most
interesting and stimulating about them: a good blog is a joy to read,
providing a gateway to material you might never have found and
provoking lively, informed debate. It doesn't have to tear down the
world.
Brendan O'Neill is the assistant editor of spiked
(www.spiked-online.com), and his blog is at www. brendanoneill.net
BEST OF THE BLOGS
HEALTH
www.precautionarytales.net
Precautionary Tales is the work of the London-based web designer Rob
Lyons - no fan of the "precautionary principle", the notion that
scientific inquiry should be carried out only when it poses zero risk
to our health and safety. According to Lyons: "If you don't play, you
can't win. Reining in experimentation carries the risk of not making
life-enhancing breakthroughs." His blog challenges health and science
panics by presenting balanced news stories and separating fact from
fear.
The site has recently focused on severe acute respiratory syndrome
(Sars), challenging the perception of the disease as a global threat.
Lyons is not alone - www.sarswatch.org tracks Sars around the globe,
while www.spacefan.blogspot.com
gives a Singapore doctor's view of the crisis. Such sites show
blogging's potential for highly personal, informed alternatives to
mainstream media coverage.
JOURNAL
knipe.org.uk/blogs/garry
Among the thousands of diary sites, there is the occasional gem -
such as A Day in the Life of a Middle Manager. This blog chronicles
the working life of Garry Knipe (right), from Warrington. He is
currently sweating over a proposed "move south" dictum from his
soon-to-merge company. He says he "used to stack shelves in the wines
and sprits department of Asda, and could do that again". Knipe is
Adrian Mole in a suit and tie, and his blog is a must read for anyone
who has ever wondered whether it is only their workplace that
resembles The Office.
SATIRE
www.scrappleface.com
Scrappleface pays homage to the absurdity of the renowned site
www.theonion.com.
With recent headlines including "Monkeys can't write Shakespeare,
but may blog well", the site pushes news stories to their illogical
conclusions, satirising our panic-stricken and politically anaemic
culture. Indeed, Scrappleface has exposed the fine line that
separates satire from reality by "reporting" that the US defence
secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had apologised for referring to France
and Germany as "the axis of weasels". Rumsfeld said no such thing, of
course, but that didn't stop some gullible members of the media
reporting his contrition. Who said blogs aren't influential?
WOMEN
www.blogsisters.blogspot.com
"Big blogging" is largely a man's game, even though Rebecca Blood
(www.
rebeccablood.net), the author of The Weblog Handbook, is regarded as
one of the mothers of the blogging revolution. Yet these Blog Sisters
are doing it for themselves, and this site, founded by Jeneane Sessum (above), has created a virtual collective "where men can link, but
they can't touch". Hundreds of women post comments on topics such as
clothes-shopping for daughters and the future of feminism. Countering
derogatory claims of "incestuous" bloggers, who link to each other in
a self-congratulatory way, Blog Sisters is a positive example of a
community, bringing together an eclectic mix of commentary and
insight on a single page.
CULTURE
booksurfer.blogspot.com
This British-based one-man blog alerts readers to the latest book
releases and author interviews in the press, and keeps track of
literary talking points.
Passion for the intellectual activity of reading permeates
Booksurfer - of the BBC's The Big Read, Martyn Everett, who runs the
site, wrote: "The BBC produces excellent book programmes and scores
of literary adaptations ... These are the best possible way of
promoting literature, without resorting to a mock 'beauty contest'
like The Big Read." The site involves the web in the cultivation of
reading taste - in the past month, it has drawn attention to an
e-book site, a search service for second-hand books and site devoted
to reviews of children's books. Much blogging may be puerile, but
Booksurfer shows that parts of the "blogosphere" are not dumbed-down.
POLITICS
www.voxpolitics.com
This blog has the modest ambition of explaining "how new technology
changes politics". The site voices strong opinions, questioning, for
example, whether Hansard's new "yoof politics" site is "just another
misguided site with big graphics and silly cartoons". It is a group
blog, run by members of the think tank world, although most of the
postings are from one individual. VoxPolitics hosts round-table
discussions in London three or four times a year as part of its
attempt to "build our virtual and physical community of interest".
Other political blogs also drive debate beyond the web:
www.sluggerotoole.com, a provocative blog on Northern Ireland,
recently published its first printed pamphlet, A Long Peace:
The Future of Unionism in Northern Ireland.


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