Sunday, 2 January 2011

The end of blogging as we know it...

Some media attention has been garnered by the likes of Labour MP Paul Flynn and the BBC's Andrew Marr as a 'backlash' against the blogosphere gathers pace, perhaps because there's a general concensus that blogging in the UK has never been so influential as it is now.

Some authors go so far as to describe the medium as "one of the great democratic transformations of our generation," while others view it as an extension of existing forms, albeit with much fewer restrictions on entry.

Indeed, the 2010 general election was the first general election where a significant body of opinion was formed and expressed online, and slow-burning news stories such as the expenses scandal were kept alive by the wealth of writers who contributed their 'two cents' with every successive revelation.

But there's something ironic about Flynn and Marr's criticisms of democracy where every opinion can be equally valid and yet in which disagreement is somehow expected to evaporate. Instead we could ask, was 2010 actually the high-water mark for blogging?

Nevertheless recent events have highlighted the changing face of the blogosphere and the way media stories develop.

Where the main body of the 'democratic' multitude previously acted as independant agents, the voluntary infrastructure has gradually been stripped away by the regular retirements of prominent and influential bloggers on various sides - many of whom performed vital services in creating connections in debate by listing links and using their reputations to shine lights on other recommended writers with a valuable or interesting perspective to put forward.

People such as Devil's Kitchen, Letters from a Tory, Mark Reckons, Tory Bear, Tom Harris and Iain Dale were popular not just for what they had to say, but because they had built up a level of trust with their audiences based on the fact they also read other writers and were prepared to publish sign-posts with links to help readers navigate their ways to more obscure parts based on their recommendations.

The consequence of the loss of these community-minded bloggers (for all their verbal restraint, or lack thereof) is the associated rise of the group blogs and otherwise coordinated new media strategies which have subverted the initial idealism into more directed purposes and more purposeful directions.

In effect we've seen a transition from mutualism to corporatism before our very eyes.

Where once you could gain an significant audience by producing consistent levels of quality, now it's about fitting with an established agenda. Where once it was about what you said, now it's about who you know. Where once it was about your ability to create an angle or an argument, now it's about which side of the debate you're on.

The blogosphere is getting increasingly partisan, and this in turn reflects a wider media trend as people react to the reality of coalition government.

Roy Greenslade pins the turning-point down. He argues that the first election leadership debate gave the traditional media an opportunity to synthesise the public outpourings of the e-sphere as the means to regain their 'clout' (notably the blogosphere reaction was one of the best - and final - posts I managed from my digest of local blogs, read here) - and was one which the old hands didn't fail to seize.

With newspaper sales nudging an 'eye-popping' 15m, in addition to burgeoning online viewership, he says, "The power of the British press is not an illusion, and it is obviously not a thing of the past."

So perhaps it was always a fantasy that the blogosphere could stay as it was.

This trend first began to become apparent during the CSR debate, particularly when the IFS intervened in a politically-charged analysis which drew distinctions between definions of 'progressive' and 'fair'. And the glaringly obvious truth has been undeniable since the final day of the pre-Christmas Westminster session when the Daily Telegraph published a Vince Cable expose (supposedly a gaffe) that there are internal tensions within the two-party cabinet.

These controversies were entertaining to watch unfold, primarily for what they had to say about the way that the corporatist-media complex was flexing its' muscles to reassert its' dominance as the preeminent opinion-former (and the knock-on effect of the ability to direct the shaping of society), rather than how they informed the public about the way our new government was functioning.

Yet they were two storms on the peripheries which assumed greater importance to the media organisations precisely because their value could be measured in the monetized terms of additional sales rather than any effect they had on voting patterns and policy.

So what happened to bloggers?

Steve Richards helpfully notes the 'daunting' nature of the modern multi-media landscape, but reassures us opinion will always have its' place, even though he hints that this is, will, and should remain, at the bottom of the food-chain.

As Will Heaven discusses, twitter didn't kill the blogosphere, but the best commentators got absorbed into the professional ranks.

On the other side Jon Worth makes a similar point, although with more regret and less wistfulness - he suggests your position as a top blogger is nowadays a consequence of your position inside the mainstream, rather than the means by which you can enter it.

Which brings me back to mentioning Tim Montgomerie's insight about how the churn reflects the growing divergence between the industrial blogs capable of regular quality-controlled output and those independents involved in movement politics.

So it's easy to see how this shift in emphasis has had an impact for the way each new communication medium is used and that there are obvious interests involved which must be considered more fully in understanding how they can be best used.

Put alongside this the obvious costs of news-gathering and associated benefits of the peer-review enabled by a committee room full of editorial staff (on conference call, obviously) and it's clear the drive for reliability and consistency has been at the expense of greater vitality and vibrancy, but is not necessarily bad for all that.

It remains a truism that to live is to choose, and that trade-offs are unavoidable, but the pendulum is there to swing and swing again it will.

The year ahead will certainly see a fightback... maybe I should think about taking some of the advice I find in these links and be a bit more focussed myself - there are definitely lots of niches still to be carved out and filled!

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