Personal Publishing

The Guardian's Best British Blog Award

I’ve been quite outspoken about the Guardian’s Best British Blog award – and for this reason I was asked to participate in an online debate with Simon Walden, representing the Guardian.

In July 2002, the Guardian announced that it would be running a Best British Blog award with a prize of ≈Ì1000, to be judged by a group of judges ranging from Anita Roddick to Jen Bolton (ex of Immediate reactions from around British weblogging were very mixed. Some people thought the competition was an amusing diversion, but quite a sizeable group thought the awards process was a strange and kind of ridiculous idea that would do little for webloggers or weblogging.
I was quite outspoken about my feelings towards the competition – and for this reason (and because I’d been the lucky recipient of the Bloggies‘ “Best European Weblog” award – I was asked to participate in an online debate with Simon Walden, representing the Guardian.
The transcript of this debate is below – or you can view it on if you’d prefer…
The transcript:
To: Simon Waldman
Sent by: Tom Coates

When Simon introduced this competition he said that the Guardian had quickly embraced personal publishing. he’s quite right – the Guardian has probably done more to encourage people to start their own weblogs than any other organisation in the UK. But I think it has now moved from supporting a grass-roots movement to attempting to appropriate it.
If weblogs are valuable at all, they are so because they give people a place to talk about whatever they want, however they want. Your weblog could be an intimate, personal space to get advice about your burgeoning sexuality, a frequently updated news feed about software development, or a soapbox to declare your extreme political views. The thing that unites all these people, however, is a certain authenticity of voice – these are real people talking openly about the things that matter to them.
In my opinion, pitting such radically different and very personal sites against one another undermines that authenticity, just as it demeans the motivations of the people who created them. But more importantly, it seems to me impossible to judge and unfair to do so. Is one person’s life trauma a better read than another’s thoughts on contemporary politics? And should we really be delighted that some cod-celebrities and old-tree hacks are setting themselves up to be the judges of our communities? I’ll be voting with my feet and boycotting the contest.
To: Tom Coates
Sent by: Simon Waldman

Your description of what makes weblogs so valuable shows the sort of eloquence and intelligence and I would expect from someone who has already won several awards for his weblogging activities (we’ll come to them in a minute). But, I think your reaction against our competition lacks some of your usual clarity of thought.
Yes, “pitting different types of weblog against each other” isn’t easy – any more than comparing comedies and thrillers in the Oscars, or classical music and drum and bass in the Mercury prize – but it isn’t impossible, and it certainly doesn’t undermine blogging. After all, it has been done before – remember?
You are the proud owner of the title “European Blogger of the Year” according to the Bloggies. This award similarly pitted different blogs against each other – right across the continent. So are you saying it is all right to do this all the way across Europe, but not across Britain? Or would you like to hand your awards back as a matter of principle?
This competition is the result of our respect for the movement, not an attempt to appropriate it. We would no more try and appropriate blogging than we’d try to herd cats, juggle jelly and push water uphill at the same time.
We have almost 180 years’ history as a radical newspaper. Representing and promoting diverse and minority voices is something we have done for decades, regardless of the medium. This is why we – including many of those you dismiss as “dead-tree editors” – find weblogging so exciting, and why we are looking and will continue to look for ways to support and promote it.
We’ve had hundreds of entries. Shame you’re not among them, but we’ll survive.
To: Simon Waldman
Sent by: Tom Coates

Of course you’ll survive – a well established newspaper like the Guardian isn’t going to be affected by the groans of motley, partly washed web enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the weblogging world doesn’t have 180 years of history behind it – and as such is much more vulnerable.
Your two points – that prizes like this are common in other media, and that my protests are hypocritical – reflect (I think) a misunderstanding about the nature of personal publishing. The things that make weblogs special and different to other media are exactly the things that make large-scale media awards for them redundant.
Weblogs are not (just) written to entertain audiences, but are also spaces where people can talk openly about their lives. Asking people to compete in self-revelation, to play up to the cameras, seems wrong to me!
Webloggers aren’t prostituting themselves for cash. In fact one important aspect is to have a place for yourself, somewhere personally important. Asking people to expose themselves for cash seems wrong to me!
Most webloggers form friendships with both readers and other webloggers. An external body encouraging competition between friends also seems wrong to me.
And the Bloggies? They’re incomparable. It’s a tiny event that no one takes seriously, with negligable prizes, and which has little interest to anyone outside weblogging. But most importantly, it’s an award in which every participant, every judge and every voter is a weblogger or weblog reader (and an equal) rather than an inexpert “real-life big name”, whose qualifications and ability to judge remain totally suspect.
To: Tom Coates
Sent by: Simon Waldman

I’m not going into a judge-by-judge defence of our panel, but we wouldn’t have chosen them if we didn’t think they were perfect for the task. They are all keen webloggers or readers. Most have been involved with the net for the best part of a decade. They are all very able and, thankfully, willing to judge. Your suspicions are ill-founded.
I respect the personal nature of personal publishing. This is why we are not forcing anyone to enter, nor are we allowing people to be nominated against their will. If some people see their weblog as something for themselves, or a small group of friends, they have nothing to fear from this competition.
However, what is wrong with people wanting to raise the profile of their blogs, and have the chance of earning some money at the same time?
We just want to promote and reward the best British bloggers, if, and only if, they want to be promoted and rewarded. And, judging from the number of entries we have had, it seems there are plenty who do.
Moreover, our assessment of “best” includes all the values that you hold dear – particularly authenticity. “Playing up to the camera” will not be appreciated.
This is hardly a large-scale media award. We have put in place a decent (but still reasonably modest) cash prize, not because we want people to prostitute themselves, but because we think anything less would seem mean. We think it is a perfectly fair reward for the amount of effort that anyone has to go into to keep up a decent blog.
I can see what you’re afraid of. I just don’t think that we’re it. When News International discovers weblogs, don’t worry, I’ll be there fighting it with you.
To: Simon Waldman
Sent by: Tom Coates

I think at this point I should make clear that I don’t believe that the Guardian is intentionally exploiting weblogs or that they are consciously aware of the potential damage this could do to a community in its infancy. I have total confidence in Lloyd Shepherd, the Guardian’s chief producer at Guardian Unlimited when he said recently: “It’s all good clean fun. We didn’t do [the competition] to wind anyone up – we were trying to raise the profile of British blogs as well as our site. It’s supposed to be a win-win situation”.
But despite this I think you’re being disingenuous when you say that you want “to promote and reward the best British blogs, if and only if, they want to be promoted and rewarded”. Your prize is called “The Best British Blog” award – and declares itself to be an attempt to find that mythical beast – even though many British weblogs are boycotting it on principle and even though the criterion of “the best” actually means the personal feelings of a very limited and unrepresentative group of people.
Perhaps with a less outrageously presumptuous name – “The Guardian Weblog of the Year” maybe – it would seem less arrogant. Perhaps with prizes that appealed to people who were in love with the medium (creative software or training or even an experience worth writing about) it would seem less out of touch.
Instead, the Guardian has declared itself an arbiter of weblogs – it has moved from being a paper that delights in participation in a community to one that feels it has the right to be the judge of it.
It’s time for the Guardian to stop promoting weblogs from the outside, and instead start actively helping the community from within. There are many ways it could be constructive – from sponsoring a real-life British weblogging event to providing new ways for weblogs to interact with each other or with the Guardian’s site. Can’t we put this ludicrous contest behind us and do something more useful with our time?
To: Tom Coates
Sent by: Simon Waldman

One of the prime reasons we embarked on the competition was to help start the debate about how a traditional media owner such as ourselves can engage with a movement that is in many ways the very antithesis of traditional media. So, your suggestions on how we might improve the competition in future years, or get further involved with the weblogging community, are very welcome. The start, I hope, of an ongoing dialogue.
If changing the name from “Best British Blog” to “Guardian Unlimited Weblog of the Year”, or something similar, would help win you and others over, then we’re happy to consider it (it’s not quite as snappy, but it’ll do).
We did consider different prizes, but in the end, we decided to stick with cash as we felt it was better to let people decide what to spend it on themselves, rather than trying to second guess people’s needs and wants. Our favourite idea was a “Supermarket Sweep” at PC World, which we thought would be good fun, but a little pricey – (and yes, we did debate whether webloggers would really want to buy from PC World).
At the end of this flurry of emails, I hope you can see that our intentions were good, even if you disagree with our actions. The cash we have put up, the senior executives we have put forward as judges, the space we have given to it both in print and online are a sign of respect for the weblogging community, not an attempt to lord over it.
I think we both agree on what makes weblogging so wonderful. I like to think that over the next year – long after this competition is over and the winner has blown his or her winnings – we will embark on a number of initiatives that might help it stay that way.
All the best,