The end of the year brings to an end an extraordinary decade for social media on the Internet. Google has turned itself into a verb, Youtube has become a video-sharing phenomenon, Facebook has transformed the way people talk to their friends while Twitter has established itself as the premier destination for finding out what is happening in the world right now. All have been crucial in democratising the Internet. Yet none of them have had the same effect on democracy itself as much as technology that predated the decade. That technology is blogging, which seems almost old hat as the Noughties draw to a close.
Yet blogging has not disappeared. On the contrary, blogging is a mature technology that is in rude health on an international scale. In 2006 the Pew Internet & American life project estimated that 12 million adult Americans kept blogs and 57 million adult Americans read them. Five million blogs globally posted content in June 2008 in 66 countries across 20 languages. 59 percent of these are maintained by people who have been blogging for 2 years or more. Scott Rosenberg says that the “blogosphere” is so large and anarchic, it does not exist in the singular. There were many blogospheres. “The one you saw depended on which little slice of the blog universe you were following.”
Blogs are interactive, contain posts of varying lengths in reverse chronological order, usually contain hyperlinks, allow comments, and have a blogroll of other blogs. But there is no single accepted definition of a blog. The academic Scott Wright said “It is generally accepted that a blog is a regularly updated website with information presented in reverse chronological order. But what do we understand by the term regular? I have recently updated a blog having failed to do so for several months. In the intervening period, was it a blog, a defunct blog, or a website?” Others have argued that a blog must contain a blog-roll or links section, yet several apparently highly active blogs do not have blog-rolls.
The technology advances of the later 1990s made mass communications possible in a way impossible in any previous era. In Dec 1997 Usenet user Jorn Barger coined the term weblog on his site robotwisdom.com to define his site which he saw as both a log of, and on the web. Barger’s site contained posts and hyperlinks but had no comments or other interaction. In early 1999 Internet analyst Peter Merholz announced he was pronouncing the word we-blog or “blog” for short and said he liked the new name’s crudeness and dissonance. “I like that it [blog] is roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking”.
Information upchucking became a lot easier with new blogging tools such as Google Blogger, Wordpress and Movable Type in the early 2000s. No longer, as A.J. Liebling suggested, did the freedom of the press belong exclusively to those who own one. Blogs evolved from being listings of websites people liked to increasingly take the form of personal journals sharing thoughts and encourage others to take part in conversation.
Blogs have changed our politics and our world. Their hyperlinking structure created a nonlinear activity and an almost instantaneous feedback loop. These hotlinks are the key to the success of the blogs. Stephen Coleman called blogs the listening posts of modern democracy. According to David Perlmutter, the advent of blogging allowed people to bypass regular big media and create mass communications messages without formal training, in the process reaching large audiences, inviting others to co-author knowledge and producing a range of effects on public opinion, political affairs and government policymaking.
The word blog first appeared in a mainstream publication on 11 October 1999. The New Statesman described it as a “web page, something like a public commonplace book, which is added to each day…if there is any log they resemble, it is the captain’s log on a voyage of discovery”.
A couple of months later the word appeared in a newspaper in Ottawa Citizen article about pop singer Sarah McLachlan. Television took another six months to cotton on. And even then it was a typical TV take-down. CNNdotCom’s show of 8 July 2000 introduced its nerdword of the day thus: “Today’s training in technobabble: “blog”. No it’s not the way feel in the morning after drinking too much tequila the night before. And no its not one of the creatures found in Dr Seuss’s zoo”.
But blogs were quickly escaping the zoo and entering the mainstream. Blogs were an ideal outlet to express the trauma caused by 9/11. At a 2002 Harvard conference on Internet communication Professor Jay Rosen of New York University identified “a new kind of public, where every reader can be a writer and people do not so much consume the news as they ‘use’ it in active search for what’s going on sometimes in collaboration with each other, or in support of the pros.” This was the germ of Rosen’s later oft-quoted idea of the “people formerly known as the audience”.
But not everyone was convinced the former audience was up to the job. Writing around the same time as Rosen, Washington Post editors Len Downie and Robert Kaiser’s critique of journalism decried the degeneration of political reporting and investigative journalism and blogs were no help either. “There is little [in blogs] of what journalists would call reporting (our study this year found 5%)” they wrote.
While the majority 95 percent ran the gamut from purely personal journals to opinions that could not make it into big media, the five percent that reported were starting to make inroads. The power of American bloggers was shown in the Trent Lott and Dan Rather cases. Lott was a key congressional ally of George W. Bush but the president was obliged to denounce him after the blogs ran hard on his Strom Thurmond 100th birthday speech. In “Rathergate” the blogs forced CBS to apologise for the fact it could not prove its documents were authentic and Rather himself retired.
In the UK, blogger Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) is a one-man wrecking ball with a string of political scalps. Salam Pax’s online diary captured the frightening reality of invasion in Baghdad during the Iraqi war that disputed official accounts of the conduct of the 2003 war. Elsewhere in Asia, successful Korean OhMyNews’s motto is “every citizen is a reporter" while online citizen journalism outfit Malaysiakini has evolved into Malaysia’s premier news site.
Here in Australia there have been no “gotcha” moments among the blogs yet but they are proving successful if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Mainstream media have been busy copying the blogs while still professing to damn them – who could forget The Australian’s 2007 castigation of “sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper”?. But by 2009 News Ltd had started up The Punch, while Fairfax reheated the National Times masthead and the ABC has begun The Drum. The Drum’s editor Jonathan Green was hired from Crikey where he was responsible for starting up an influential network of bloggers to complement its journalism.
Asking whether blogging is journalism is like asking whether TV is journalism: it all depends on what’s on. The two practices should and do co-exist - often under the same name. Nevertheless the transformation from journalist to blogger isn’t always smooth. The Guardian’s groundbreaking Comment is Free website struggles to deal with the hoi polloi. As contributor and political journalist Jackie Ashley puts it, “there will always be those who know much more about a subject than a columnist. And equally there will be those who think they know much more. I’m delighted to hear from both: just so long as you make proper arguments and don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.”
The ease of anonymous publishing in an online environment has turned it into a space where it is all too easy to diagnose stupidity. Rumours, hoaxes and cheating games circulate which risk the public sphere descending into a chaos and anarchy. But as Henry Jenkins notes this is not an inevitable outcome, “As the digital revolution enters a new phase, one based on diminished expectations and dwindling corporate investment,” he says, “grassroots intermediaries may have a moment to redefine the public perception of new media and to expand their influence”. That moment has arrived.