Lost In Transmission

There’s a very long piece in The Dubliner about old media vs. new media or what you may call it, titled On Talking Shite. It is probably easier to read in print format, but it has some quite interesting thoughts, and a good survey of the position of dominant Irish media outlets vis-a-vis online publishing and stuff.

There were some thoughts about blogging which I found engaging, what with me having a blog and that. Call it Talking Shop about Talking Shite, if you will.

While amateur bloggers might be able to point out the inconsistencies in the Bush memoes broadcast by CBS and give a fading story continued online momentum, could they ever have pulled off Watergate? Woodward and Bernstein’s scoop relied on a combination of tip-offs and relentless tedious legwork. An unpaid, self-publishing blogger is unlikely to have the same access, resources, or determination.

By sapping public confidence in professional journalism, bloggers who rage against the MSM may thus be undermining the very culture of confrontational journalism which they claim to represent.

This evaluation of the possibilities of blogging is based on quite a few assumptions, some of which are: one, that there is a reasonably uniform activity known as ‘blogging’ that corresponds roughly to the activities of professional journalists and could be at least proposed as a viable substitute (there isn’t); two, that Watergate was all that important in the scheme of things (it wasn’t, beyond its function as a self-serving myth for journalists), three, that professional journalism as presently constituted is generally a useful instrument for revealing the dark deeds of centres of power to the public (it isn’t), four, that raging against the MSM saps public confidence in professional journalism (it doesn’t), five, that there is a culture of confrontational journalism (there isn’t), six, bloggers claim to represent a culture of confrontational journalism (they don’t). Apart from that, it’s an accurate assessment.

This may be unfair, so I feel I should point out that all assumptions outlined above are likely to be validated by quite a large number of people who call themselves bloggers. So there are lots of people out there who hold that what they do is reasonably comparable to professional journalism, that they represent a culture of confrontational journalism, and so on. But the fact that they do so does not in itself allow us to draw general conclusions about bloggers, any more significantly than the practices of the Legion of Mary as Christians allow us to draw general conclusions about Christians as a whole.

Although the piece manages to identify the silliness of how certain media outlets approach questions of blogs, online journalism and so-on, it still uses the image of the blogger as conjured by these media outlets: the pyjama-bound ranter. Again, this is an image in which some bloggers are also complicit, Pajamas Media being the most obvious example.

Also of interest were the views of Harry Browne:

DIT media lecturer Harry Browne argues that political blogging is a distraction from the real business of marching in the streets and going to branch meetings. According to Browne, if the people are pouring their energies into reading and spreading information while sitting at home, those in power can rest easy. Traditional collective action is more effective, says Browne, at bringing about political change. Blogging promotes what he calls “a narcissistic illusion of presence” because for a blogger who gets a few comments from readers about a post, this may be “more reaction than they get in the real world.” However, he does credit blogging with demystifying journalism and showing that anyone can do it really.

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that there exists a reasonably uniform activity known as ‘blogging’, then we should also allow for the existence of ‘political blogging’. So, let’s say that it exists: how would it specifically, as distinct from any other activity, say table tennis, dog walking, flicking through Heat magazine, distract from (the writer may be paraphrasing) ‘the real business of marching in the streets’? I suppose we could say that because people who blog about politics are those actors most likely to have an interest in political matters, the opportunity cost of writing a post about politics is an hour and a half chained to the gates of an arms manufacturer. But that ain’t necessarily so. The activity of reading or writing a post about some political matter often takes place in concurrence with other, tragically necessary activities, like attending a conference call or eating one’s lunch, or, as is my wont currently, waiting to feed the child at midnight.

There is another important consideration that Browne’s analysis omits: in my experience, traditional modes of association for workers, activists and other interested parties are in decline. People spend more time at work. They don’t live beside the people they work with. It takes a lot more effort than it once did to get to the pub or the other designated meeting place. Internet-based communication, of which weblogs are one component, allows for the possibility for alternative modes of association, alternative communities of interest. So, how do people get on with ‘the real business of marching in the streets’ if they can’t find out about the issues in the first place, since those whom one might naturally expect to write about these issues are, as he (rightly) puts it ‘shit shovellers….processing pseudo-events and dishing them out to the public to suit the interests of power brokers and PR companies’?

In Spanish, when people talk about media, they don’t simply refer to the ‘medios’, the plural of medium. They say ‘medios de comunicación’: communication media. Raymond Williams in Keywords notes the extremes of the meaning of the noun ‘communication’: at the one extreme, you have transmit, a one-way process, and at the other, to share, a common or mutual process. Since, generally speaking, the ‘communication’ part is not rendered explicit in English when considering matters of ‘new’ vs. ‘old’ media, what is considered is how the media differ, in terms of professional vs. amateur, investigative vs. forensic, and so forth, rather than how the forms of communication differ. If you read through the Dubliner piece, you will see that it is primarily concerned with transmission, and addresses the question of blogs etc. on how well they transmit, that is, how well they perform the function of newspapers etc. Nothing wrong with that when you’re concerned with print media on behalf of a printed magazine, but it’s not really a valid basis for developing a proper critique of blogs.

I think, roughly put, newspapers, magazines and TV stations are good at transmitting and bad at sharing, and blogs are good at sharing and bad at transmitting. Newspapers only share when they’re paid to do so, which, unless we can say that McDonalds likes to share its food, isn’t really sharing at all. On the other hand, someone like me shares quite a lot of things, which I produce at a considerable personal opportunity cost (the next best alternative for me would be becoming a captain of industry and having fun on helicopters), with no expectation that it will result in material reward. There’s nothing remarkable about this, unless you think there is something remarkable about two people having a conversation because they feel like it.


7 Responses to “Lost In Transmission”

  1. 1 Niall February 13, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Excellent analysis.

    I do feel Harry Browne has a point about political blogs substituting political activism rather than adding to it, however.

    It may be the only structure of communication available to work-fatigued politically-minded people but isn’t that itself an indictment of the state of political activism?

  2. 2 KevanB February 13, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    May the conversation continue. Basically in this instance I am just nodding. But that is part of every chat.

  3. 3 Hugh Green February 13, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    Thanks for the comments people.

    Niall, I think this boils down to how you decide to define a political blog. There are plenty of people writing blogs who are quite delusional about the import of what they write. And maybe even the participative/interactive element of things -comment threads and discussions across blogs and so on- lends the impression that more is being achieved than is in fact the case.

    But then again, so what? There are plenty of activists who double up as windbags, and plenty of opportunities wasted in activist meetings. Browne’s criticism seems to be that people who write and read political blogs lose sight of the fact that there’s a real world out there. Which may be true to a point, but there are also lots of people in the real world who don’t realise they’re there. One advantage that an interactive political blog has over a debate down the pub is that a lot of the interaction requires careful consideration, and there’s no problem writing meeting minutes.

    I fear I’m rambling here, and thereby demonstrating a shortcoming of the medium. But a couple of further points, and I’ll confine them to the Irish situation: yes, political activism is in a pretty poor state. But I think part of that is down to the seemingly unprecedented prosperity of recent years. For example, given the central role of foreign investment, it’s hard to convince someone to consider joining a trade union if he thinks that this is precisely the sort of thing that drives transnational corporations away. So I think that in such a situation, activism appears as anti-progress.

    One more thing: there hasn’t been any discussion about how blogs are actually used as instruments for activists, as a cheap and cheerful means of communicating what is going on. A friend of mine is currently striking in Spain about pay for Ministry of Justice employees, and the workers have a blog chronicling the strike and articulating their positions:


    So, I think that talking about blogs and politics has to take account of that type of activity too, and not just the activity that most closely corresponds to newspaper op-eds.

  4. 4 Niall February 14, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    I agree there is a tendency to equate blogs with newspaper columns, which is a bit of a false dichotomy. I think its more interesting to view blogging, of all kinds, in a social context. There is a huge amount of time and energy expended worldwide in blogging: what social and personal activity has that replaced, and what effect, if any, does this have on the culture at large?

  5. 5 Niall February 14, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I agree there is a tendency to equate blogs with newspaper columns, which is a bit of a false dichotomy. I think its more interesting to view blogging, of all kinds, in a social context. There is a huge amount of time and energy expended worldwide in blogging: what social and personal activity has that replaced, and what effect, if any, does this have on the culture at large?

  6. 6 Hugh Green February 14, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Both parts of your question are very difficult to answer. First, people wouldn’t be using blogs if the infrastructure of the internet wasn’t there already. And that infrastructure was created to address certain needs that already existed, in terms of how society is supposed to be organized. So you have an array of needs related to fields of administration, surveillance, communication, not forgetting the military dimension to things, the technology is developed to address it, and people then make use of that technology to meet their own private ends.

    I guess I’m saying that social and personal activities were liable to change on account of deeper societal shifts, and that uses of technology for activities such as blogging is on account of these shifts, and not its origin. So you could say that blogging has replaced things like family conversation, going round to the neighbours, television watching, walking the dog, reading the newspaper, social activism etc, but that leaves to one side questions of population migration, housing, working practices and so on.

    Its impact on the culture at large: I don’t know. Millions of people sit at screens all day digesting information of some form or another. So they learn how to process and manipulate information in ways that they didn’t do say 30 years ago, and how they deal with blogs can’t, I think, get separated from the wider question of how information is managed and how it changes human behaviour.

  1. 1 Dublin Opinion » Blog Archive » Don’t Get Blogged Down in New Vs Traditional Media (Non)Debate Trackback on February 13, 2008 at 1:30 pm

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