On how journalists write about webloggers…

05/29/2005

There’s an article in the Sunday Times today called Golden rules for blogging clever which features a few choice morsels of salient quotage from some bloke not a million miles away from this weblog. For this reason alone I recommend you buy the paper in question. Possibly you should be so impressed that you should consider sending me some naked pictures of yourselves?

Moving on though – the article itself is very strange. It seems to wend its way between a number of different registers – starting off in a ‘weblogs and online communities are important’ area and then wanders directly into a ‘who the hell do you think you are to think anyone cares what you think’ kind of space. I find this very odd, given that the article is supposedly about giving people tips for writing a weblog. It’s been a while since I read a cookery book, but I’m pretty sure they don’t start by telling people that they’re worthless and they’ll never amount to anything. That kind of motivational speech seems more commonly left to parents. (Of course the article isn’t actually aimed at people starting a weblog at all, but at people who want to observe it from the sidelines with a cup of tea and a raised eyebrow while slowly dying inside.)

From having apparently smacked down the reader for their nerve – their very presumption – that they might find value in self-expression, the article moves on to slightly self-satirise. Now the mockery is a bit ironic – it knows we don’t really want to be boring and that we’re all able to see the funny side of the whole thing. To support its case, it brings in a few of the classier webloggers (Heather Armstrong and myself) to comment. And what do we say? Well, basically we say that all this stuff about being boring is rather missing the point and it’s not about getting a huge audience and that self-expression is really important and stuff and that if people derive value from their weblogs then that’s good, right? Right?

Well, all I can say is that it’s lucky that our brief comments don’t distract from the main thrust of the article! No hippies are going to distract from the relentless pursuit of traffic, after all. So we get a humourous take on giving your weblog a sexy name, a patch on how to pander to other weblogs to get hits, a bref paragraph on Googlebombing and a few words on the apparent incestuousness of the culture. The article recommends writing about your sex life, getting fired for writing a weblog and peddling extreme opinions. All of these things will get you a book deal and only then will people want to get you naked because they’ve heard your name on television.

I think the reason I find this whole article so amusing is because it’s the ultimate archetype of all news stories about weblogs. Its every word exposes the assumptions and prejudices of journalists and – I think more widely – the British. So you’ve got the censorious attitude to people expressing themselves in public (self-expression isn’t really proper), then you’ve got the whole amateur-versus-professional argument that neurotically restates only proper journalists are worth reading. These journalists, who – we are reminded by the rest of the article – really assume that (i) the only reason to write is to get famous, (ii) there’s no value in community or discussion or debate and (iii) normal people would sell their granny for dog meat to get famous. And to cap it all off, the examples that they use are all the ones that reveal the bankrupcy of the news media – that a culture of millions of webloggers can only really be understood by the tabloidish stories that make it across into the ‘proper’ media. The whole thing is gloriously cock-eyed.

I’m being a bit unfair, of course. It’s not nearly that clear-cut, and there’s some really interesting stuff here. I like that Simon Jenkins expressed an anxiety about the role of the newspaper columnist in the amateurised opinion space. I don’t think he’s got an enormous amount to worry about – in fact he should be delighted, he could be a giant in that space if he wanted – but that all depends on viewing changes as opportunities rather than threats. Here are a few more of my thoughts – good and bad – in the form of an unordered list:

  • I love the fact that the word hippo-griff is used in this article. For that alone, I will give you one billion dollars. You heard me. One billion. Although I’m a bit surprised by the hyphen. Maybe I won’t give you a billion dollars after all. Damn sub-editors.
  • “The absolute golden rule of blogging – it is literally made of gold – is: Do not blog”, says our journo. It’s literally made of gold? What, really? Dear God, man – misuse of ‘literally’ in this way is pretty much the first thing that you get smacked in the mouth for at journalism school. What are you doing!? Unless of course there really is a golden rule cast in gold somewhere – on a mountain or something. In which case, I want to see it. While we’re at it – who the hell made up this rule? I’ve never heard it before. It’s not even a parody of ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. I don’t get it.
  • If you read the article in print, then you get confronted with an enormous picture of that bloody berk who got (as far as I can tell) fired from Waterstones for being a bit of an idiot and not reading his contract. I’ve never felt a lot of sympathy for him – even though the relationship between a weblogger’s site and their working life is a complex one that I’ve been coming up against a bit recently – because he just seemed to have been such a twit about the whole thing. I’d recommend reading two things about this subject: Anil Dash’s expansion on his assertion that no one gets fired for blogging and a Tech Station article called The Unbearable Rightness of Nick Denton.

Ah, that’ll do. I’m bored now. Fun article! Took me ages to respond to. Probably better than I’m giving it credit for. Seeya!