“The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate” said Labour MP Paul Flynn on Radio 4 today, “it is dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical”. The blogosphere has been getting quite a lot of stick of late. When Iain Dale departed a couple of weeks back, he cited numerous reasons, but it was his references to ”backbiting” and “character assasination” that journalists picked up on. The idea that blogging is dominated by the aggressive and abusive has become something of an orthodoxy.
In October, Andrew Marr caused a ripple with his vituperative rant against ”the socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men” who dominated the blogsosphere and gave it an “angry and abusive” character. Meanwhile a recent headline in the Independent told us that “the stench of the blogosphere is overpowering”.
But is any of this true? Is Blogging really dominated by the nasty, the bitter and the aggressive? The big irony about Marr’s rant is that most well established bloggers would be embarassed to have a rant like his published on their sites. The image of bloggers as bitter, socially inadequate types arguably owes more to tired cliches about boys who like computers, than to reality.
The sheer size and diversity of the blogosphere, of course makes it possible to prove virtually anything about the nature of the medium. You wouldn’t judge broadcast journalism by the ugliness of Press TV, and in the same way, the mere existence of some crazed and aggressive of bloggers doesn’t illuminate a great deal about the nature of blogging in general. If we are to talk about what the blogosphere is like, then it is perhaps wise to narrow our focus.
A decent starting place is wikio’s list of the most influential political blogs. These blogs tend to be the most popular, but their rankings are determined by how often they are quoted and linked to by other bloggers. In other words, Wikio is a good barometer of the attitudes of the general blogging community. Looking through the top 60 it is genuinely difficult to find sites that conform to the perceptions of Andrew Marr and Paul Flynn. Sure there is Guido – and the less said about him the better – but he is very much the exception. Above him you will find Left Foot Forward – with its fiercely empirical discussion of government policy and Liberal Conspiracy. Below him you will find the likes of Adam Bienkov, a polite but utterly incisive bullshit slayer, A Very Public Sociologist, and entertaining and intelligent rightwingers like Archbishop Cramner, not to mention us at no. 43. I would venture to suggest that if a list of the most popular blogs was compared to a list of the most popular newspapers, it would be our medium that came off looking better.
If, as I suggest, the image of the blogosphere bears little relation to the reality, this in itself poses some interesting questions. Why are sections of the media and political establishment so keen to do blogging down? It may be that those unfarmiliar with the format have trouble distinguishing significant blogs from the insignificant. It might be that some journalists are averse to having their words uncompromisingly chewed over (see Christina Patterson below). And it is, I suspect, the case that some people are uncomfortable that the oiks have made it in by the back door – that even without the endorsement of a major institutions, ordinary individuals are being read by tens of thousands of people. This, indeed, would explain Marr’s determined insistence that “so-called citizen journalism” has “nothing to do with journalism at all.”
And if this is why the likes Marr and Paul Flynn MP sneer and recoil, it is also why I am genuinely proud to be a part of the blogosphere. I do not think it is hyperbole to say that blogging is one of the great democratic transformations of our generation. It is amazing to consider how difficult it was, just a few years back, for somebody to reach a substantial national audience without support from one of a handful of media organisations.
Without well recognised brand names or big marketing budgets, bloggers have carved out a substantial audience soley on the strength of their writing, and their ability to imagine what might interest people. And long may we continue to do so.