Saturday, September 29, 2007

Australian Blogging Conference – The Politics of Blogging

The early morning panel session was the only formal part of the Australian Blogging Conference where all the participants were in the same room. After morning tea, the conference broke up into four breakout rooms to discuss intriguing issues that affect the blogosphere. After much indecision on which one to attend, I plumped for “the politics of blogging” over “blogs, creativity and the creative commons”, “researching blogging” and “legal issues.”

This session had a four person panel including Senator Andrew Bartlett, Brett Solomon, Graham Young and the facilitator Mark Bahnisch. Bahnisch opened up the forum. Mark Bahnisch is a Brisbane academic and prodigious online writer and commentator. He is a sociologist in the School of Arts at Griffith University and is the custodian of the political and cultural group blog Larvatus Prodeo. He also contributes for Crikey, Online Opinion and New Matilda.

He began the session by remarking that contrary to claims, blogs were hierarchical in format, with a system of a title page, posts and comments. He saw himself as less of a blogging evangelist and has a “more modest view” of where blogging is going. He saw it as “a conversation not a platform”. He compared the Australian blogosphere to its American counterpart and observed we are “not getting there”. The US equivalent exercises far more influence in both politics and money. Bahnisch suggested that may be no bad thing. He said the notion that the US is the template for Australian blogs was a cliché as was the claim that “blogging wasn’t journalism”. He quoted the Australian’s editor Chris Mitchell who praised his newspaper’s coverage of opinion polling because “unlike Crikey, we understand Newspoll because we own it”.

Bahnisch said that ownership in this context “was something not physical”. What The Australian meant was: “we own the right to decide who enters political discourse in this country and on what terms”. He said the real audience for the newspaper’s media narratives were the other participants in politics and the media in Canberra. Mitchell dismissed bloggers as “sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper”. Bahnisch said Mitchell is afraid of the barbarians at the gate and weaves a “web of spin that has a political purpose”.

Bahnisch turned to Australia’s thriving psephological blogs and said what they do best is “aggregate distributed knowledge”. The mainstream media are resentful of this but gradually accepting their existence. Dennis Atkins quoted the blogs ozpolitics and possums pollytics by name this week in the Murdoch owned Brisbane Courier-Mail. Bahnisch said these blogs raise the level of accountability, aggregate and wrap up commentary, as well as interface with the major media.

Bahnisch then asked where is the Australian version of the Daily Kos and said “it was good we don’t have one”. He said the Australian blogosphere was best appreciated for its value not its influence. He quoted Margaret Simons’ interview with Club Troppo’s Nicholas Gruen. Simons asked Gruen what was the business model for blogging. Gruen said it was the gift economy. Gruen gives freely of his time and his knowledge base and in return it enriches his life and makes it more meaningful. Bahnisch said “maybe we should monetise our blogs but if we did that we would write about Paris Hilton”.

Bahnisch said we don’t have the audience they have in the US. But political blogs here provide a service. He said the test case for the Australian blogosphere will be the 2007 federal election. But he cautioned that bloggers “had been marked and failed before we got to the exam room”. There were two reasons for this, according to Bahnisch. Firstly, the view from the US was that the 2004 presidential election was the glory year for the blogs and by the time of the 2006 congressional election, the big narrative was that “people were sick of the blogosphere”. Secondly he said the space had been appropriated by the mainstream media, Google News and others who had “sucked the oxygen out of the audience of political bloggers”. He pointed out how Tim Dunlop was recruited from the blogosphere to write for News Corp but had a post removed when it criticised his own newspaper. Bahnisch believes there remains a niche for political blogs. “But they are not going to set the world on fire,” he said. “Blogs are just one node in the political conversation”.

Brett Solomon spoke next. Brett is the executive director of the online activist organisation “Getup!” Solomon said he was no expert on blogging and admitted the Getup! blog “did not have a lot of sugar”. But he added that was about to change soon. Their blog entries did sometimes attract six hundred to a thousand comments a day “when they hit their mark”. Solomon said it was exciting to tap into a community out there that wants to speak. Getup! has 200,000 members who were “not opposed to speaking out loud and have their words acted upon”. He saw it as a forum where people could say “I have a view on that and I can link in with others with similar views”. Solomon said legitimate interests were sidelined because they cannot get access to power. He also showed the ad (see video at bottom of post below) they were planning to run on AFL and ARL Grand Final days once they raised the $200,000 needed to get the airtime.

He said the other important thing was the use of the exposé. He said land rights were “the most important thing you’ve never heard of”. The government has ripped the guts out of the land rights laws with little debate. But there was outrage in the community. Their blog entry “our land, our rights” attracted 909 comments with many indigenous commenters. But there is no other media space for them. The Australian wasn’t interested, nor was the Sydney Morning Herald, nor ABC Radio National. The law was passed in parliament after just one day’s debate. Solomon said Getup! aims to engage people and “build a progressive Australia”. Its blog was a small element in bringing people together with 200,000 others “who actively agree with me”.

Andrew Bartlett didn’t not contribute greatly after his valuable input to the first session. He was also forced to leave the session early to catch a plane. He did say that the real value of blogs was the “conversation with the community”. It is less about critical mass than diversity. He said only about 80,000 people a day read The Australian but its readership is influential. He said the nature of Australian party politics lent itself to the culture of followers.

Graham Young was the final speaker. Young is a writer, and a former vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party. He is also chief editor of Online Opinion. Young said the reason he blogged was that he “wanted to have some significance”. He said Online Opinion was owned by the not-for-profit National Forum and published six quality articles a day by a diversity of authors. He said there were few regular contributors. He saw it as a constantly assembled daily newspaper and a way of opening up public discourse without the “gatekeepers Packer and Murdoch”.

Young also addressed the question of difference between the US and Australia. He said there has been no Rathergate here and no “gotchas”. But he looked at the six entries in the Online Opinion on the day and said there were all “idiosyncratic”. None of them were about the big stories of the day covered by the newspapers. There was nothing about Rudd anointing Swan for the treasury or the health crisis in NSW, which Young believes, people are more interested in. He said that if blogs don’t have the audience, they don’t have relevance.

Young concluded his arguments by saying “we should stop thinking of blogs as blogs”. They also exist in platforms such as Myspace and Facebook. He said “blogs have outlived where they are at” and more co-operation was needed. We also need to monetise to get to the next level. He said Australia needs more group blogs and clusters. After Young finished, conference sponsor Dan Walsh spoke briefly about a new project called Kwoff, a collaboration between Walsh, Stephen Mayne and Greg Barns. Walsh said Kwoff will be an Australian version of digg where they will put news to the vote to help users decide what is interesting content. Kwoff will be launched on Monday.

GetUp! grand final ad:


David Novakovic said...

Great, thanks for the update Derek. I feel particularly strongly about the need for co-op in the Aussie blogosphere. I'm working on something that should help in this regard, but its a few months until it launches.

What do you see as the way for Australian (particularly political) bloggers to collaborate? Are there many aggregators for Aus polly blogs?

The people with the technology need to help the people with the vision :)

Derek Barry said...

Thanks for your comments, David.

One good aggregator of material I know of is the Australian Index which has many ways of sorting new posts including by category and by state.

As for collaboration, I know that Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy tried an experiment of getting the top bloggers to all post on a particular topic but it never really took off.

Australian political bloggers tend toward diverseness in their topic selection (no bad thing, necessarily) but the forthcoming election will narrow the focus and hopefully see some useful cross-pollination of ideas and conversation.

Keep us posted on your new technology, good tools are always useful.

BwcaBrownie said...

Thanks for that description of The ABC - I felt I 'was there'.

Ann ODyne said...

re 'Politacal Blogging'...

if I was a BackRoom Boy for any Party, I would have all my fake blogs in place by now. with my fake 'bloggers' team, all ready to onslaught everybody's comments threads with their spin.

re the election eves: How can the
'48-hour media blackout' be applied to blogs?

Derek Barry said...

Obviously a 48 hour blackout of blogs would be impossible to enforce.

Though it probably has been fully tested in law, online media such as blogs are not deemed to be 'broadcasts' as such and therefore excluded from the intent of the Act

R.H. said...

Well if Bartlett had to catch a plane why didn't he speak first?

And listen, if you want to raise some dough you couldn't do better than hire Markus ("it's that time again") Bahnisch to take the plate around.

Sociology is a creme brulee.

(Dept of Psephological thought)

NM said...

The Australian Government is considering creating a blog/forum to give the public a chance to debate policy decisions, hopefully with input from top politicians.

If you want to help shape the blog then you can complete this quick survey here:

It's genuine and could lead to something really worthwhile.