Saturday, February 18, 2006

In Defence of Blogging

What is blogging? Is it worthwhile or is it a form of self-indulgence? It's both, of course. Trevor Butterworth in today's Financial Times Magazine tries to deliver a death blow to blogging by characterizing bloggers as get-rich-quick spoilt brats with too much time on their hands and an inflated sense of ego. Journalists, by implication, are thoughtful and altruistic in their vocation. The feeling generated by Butterworth's collection of quotes (which you can tell are out of context), errors, and mealy-mouthed expressions is one of pique and petulance, even, dare I say it, a sense of inviolable monopoly being threatened. Poor Butterworth. What is it that upsets him about blogging?

A number of untested assumptions underlie Butterworth's article. They are: (a) bloggers are in it to get fame, (b) bloggers want to make money out of blogging, and (c) bloggers suffer from verbal diarrhea.

Butterworth says, according to, there are 27 million blogs (now over 28m). Are 27 million writers in it for fame? Hardly. People blog for as many reasons as people write, keep diaries, and communicate ideas and opinions. The purpose of blogging has never been to usurp the press. Butterworth distorts his argument by focussing on blogging in Washington DC, inside the Beltway. He does mention blogging as heroism--Iran and China--as though that justifies the pursuit. If you're desparate, you can blog. While I'm not particularly interested in what happens in Washington (for me the West Wing became boring and repetitive a long time ago), I understand why it commands attention and will be a centre of blogging activity. Any city that runs on gossip will attract increasing numbers of gossips/bloggers, and that's where Butterworth is based. Of course some of them will become famous. Some of them will be imaginative, creative, and thoughtful. It's called good writing.

As to moneymaking, there are some who hope to make a buck but most are in it for the fun. Fun is a missing dimension from Butterworth's analysis. Plenty of bloggers go online anonymously in order to write about their lives and aspects of them in ways that couldn't be done with full disclosure. You may want to write about your employer, past lovers, kinky behaviour. Blogging enables this. Money has not been the driving force behind blogging.

Bloggers write too much. This is the monopoly argument: only journalists have legitimate authority to comment. There is junk blogging. But have you seen how much junk journalism there is? Just look at the Sun, the Daily Star, the News of the World, and I won't bother to mention the vast majority of the American press because it's dross. In everday life we learn to sift the bad from the good; it's called distinction.

Let me correct one error that shouldn't have escaped Butterworth. Although Judge Posner may have written about blogging in the New York Review of Books, he maintains one of the best blogs going with Gary Becker at the Becker-Posner Blog. Posner does put his money where his mouth is.

Maybe Butterworth needs to open up to the fact that the internet is an evolving entity, which has the potential to let people communicate in ways that circumvent official channels. Blogging and its derivatives don't reject the press, rather they will keep it on its toes. Blogging allows criticism. This may be the crucial bit: blogging has the potential to undermine the establishment, to threaten its authority. That's no bad thing, Butterworth.


Trevor Butterworth said...

Hi John,

Thanks for reading and writing about my article - I left a response at the FT blog. Just one thing to note here, you were a little hasty on the Posner criticism: here is what I wrote

"Even the ne plus ultra of American public intellectuals, Richard Posner, senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago, former chief judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, declared blogging to be “the latest and perhaps gravest challenge to the journalistic establishment” (although it is worth noting that Judge Posner decided to publish his meditation in The New York Times Book Review rather than on his own blog)."

Best - Trevor

Amanda Wilson said...

I'm afraid I struggle to see the link between bloggers and diary writers?
Diaries in the main are written for the benefit of oneself, often containing material that is never intended to be seen by anyone else. It's a form of self-expression that doesn't require comment or affirmation.

Blogging on the other hand appears by the very act to emanate from exhibitionists and egocentrics. The idea that anyone else would be interested in your unsolicited opinion or ideas, that are often hidebound and ignorant, certainly requires tendencies verging on the narcissistic.

However, it is an extremely useful tool in the development of discernment a necessary art in this present climate of information deluge (information used in its loosest form.)

Or maybe blogging merely caters to the desire in us all to be heard?
Blogging is at least a 'safe' form of expression in being one step removed from physical confrontation with those who may disagree with our point of view.
A stronghold from which to throw stones perhaps?

It would appear that I too suffer from this modern day malady - and so I end with the disclaimer - no offence intended.

johnflood said...

Dear Amanda

If we could be assured of an honest answer from politicians and officials, they would probably tell us that from the moment they stepped into government they kept diaries. Tony Benn was among those who are notorious for recording their daily routines and thoughts for publication. Kenneth Williams, however, I suspect never intended his diary for the public gaze. The key is the intention of the writer.

I think one must be somewhat extrovert to blog, since one's intention is to publicize. As an academic, publishing ideas is a normal part of my routine. And for me blogging accelerates what is normally a slow process. Moreover, if there are others out there in the ether who are working on similar topics, then blogging is a useful mode of exchange of ideas.

My main objection to Trevor Butterworth's article was his equating of blogging with journalism, or rather seeing it as a direct challenge to the hegemony of journalism. Blogging doesn't supplant journalism in the least. But some of the legal blogs in the US, for example, contain information I could not get from the press.

And so the conversations flow...

Caz Mockett said...

I hate to barge in on such erudite company, but I thought I'd wade in and let you know that I've been bitten by the Bugging Blog too - or is that the Blogging Bug?? It alliterates nicely either way :-)

You can read my first post here