A little while back, Trevor Butterworth had a good rant about blogging in the FT Magazine. He argued — through a series of interviews with the blogging literati — that blogging has overstayed its welcome and isn’t quite as revolutionary as everybody seems to think it is. He set up his argument like this:
“Shouldn’t we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one — especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn’t the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?”
I’ve seen this kind of ‘blogophobia’ creep into conversations over the past few months. When I was in Canada, it came up in a seminar when one person said he didn’t want think tanks to undermine political parties in the way that blogs undermine newspapers. He then talked about the unaccountability, bias and hyper-immediacy of blogging, taking it as a given that blogging was A Bad Thing.
Butterworth basically takes the same line, but I think it’s mistaken, or at least misses the point. Saying blogs are bad is like saying the telephone is evil. Yes, all technology comes with its own biases and rules that shape social uses of it. But blogging rules are pretty good, or at least pretty democratic: it encourages debate, it encourages decentralisation, the barriers to entry are very low. Now, I recognise that each of those comes with downsides, but I think the overall effect is very positive.
And blogs aren’t causing the shift away from newspapers — hundreds of forces are busy doing that (the narrow-mindedness of many media professionals for one) — but they are accelerating it, particularly for people in their teens and twenties, the people who were walking away from newspapers anyway. A few years back I was going to run a project on the decline of newspapers and I did a quick tour of newspaper editors and publishers to see who might be able to help. Most people denied there was a problem (of course) but one editor said yep, we were right and actually it was worse than we thought. He said his strategy was to completely embrace the internet and that it was starting to work. Sure circulation was falling — although there are always ways of massaging the figures — but internet readership was rocketing and advertising meant that the web now turned a profit. He said this was just the beginning and he was confident that he was in the best position of any of the UK newspapers for the next decade. I’ll leave you to guess which editor that was.
There is one part of Butterworth’s argument that I agree with:
“…[blogging] renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence.”
Or as one commenter in the blog set up to discuss the piece writes eloquently (ironically enough): “The first draft of history is still somehow nobler than the scribbled, easily misplaced notes of it.”
I think that’s fair enough. I haven’t read many blog postings that have changed my world or become seared into my memory like certain features or books I can think of. In his piece Butterworth asked all the bloggers whether they thought Orwell would have made a good blogger. It was a kind of trap because Orwell was notably better writer when holed away for months at a time. Butterworth notes, “any writer of talent needs the time and peace to produce work that has a chance of enduring.”
Books are my first love and hopefully I’ll start work on one later this year. But I’m trying to work out how to mix blogging and writing. I don’t think any of the above precludes using a blog as a tool in the writing of a book, as a way of gathering information and advice and testing the arguments as I go, but I might be wrong. There seem to be two models: Steven Johnson doesn’t even mention the fact that he’s writing a particular book until it’s finished while Chris Anderson and John Battelle set up ‘book blogs’ that make sure people know and can get involved.
I’m going to try the latter and will launch the site in a few weeks time but I know I’ll need to work hard to find the ‘time and peace’ Butterworth talks about. Advice gratefully received.