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19/02/2006

Anti-claque attack: FT baits bloggers

Trevor Butterworth's article in yesterday's Financial Times (no sub required at the moment) takes on what he sees as the unwarranted hype around blogging.

It's a hefty piece (4,500 words give or take) and makes for challenging reading - as do the comments on the blog he has set up here to debate the issues he raises. If you're interested in blogs, I advise you to take the time to read it.

Niall Cook and Drew B are critical, and I can understand why, but I think we should welcome a such robust attack on the medium and resist the urge to dismiss it too lightly.

I remember the shameful backlash piece by Forbes a few months back and this just isn't in that category of willfully ignorant scare-mongering. Mr Butterworth asks some serious questions that need to be considered and debated.

The weakest part of his argument is the focus on the economics of blogging, the idea that success can only be measured by comparing ad revenue or readerships with the New York Times. A big motivator for a lot bloggers is neither of those things.

Here are a couple of paragraphs that stood out for me:

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?

.... the “dinosaur” businesses of the old economy have a canny ability to absorb, adapt and evolve. We are already starting to see blogs taking root in well established newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic...

Good points. Yes we should be sceptical, we should question how all of this is going to turn out. It's not black and white and yes traditional media does have the motive and the opportunity, as it were, to "absorb" new forms of media, or adapt to it. That doesn't mean there isn't something powerful and fundamental happening to the media and to communications between people.

It's also true that people's attention is being competed for aggressively (see Umair's eloquent discussions of the attention economy at Bubblegeneration). But we aren't all going to sit down and read the same kinds of blogs in the same kinds of ways. The long tail model means we will find it easier to find the information, content, the conversations which are most of interest to each one of us.

As far as old media "absorbing" blogs as a medium - I'm not sure that total assimilation of the blogosphere is likely. Certainly national newspaper and other media brands are playing in this space - about 20% of the mentions of blogs or podcasts in UK media last week were plugs for own-brand social media ventures.

Mr Butterworth also picks up on the idea that blogging has exploded in the US because of the poor state of the media there - and thinks it won't happen over here.

...Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet.

What on earth he means by the last part I'm not sure. Pornography as in material that has been suppressed? Pornography as in something a bit grubby and to be ashamed of? Or just the number one use of the Internet? Certainly "sex" was famously the number one search term in the late 90s, but now that it's not and that medium is being used to more interesting ends, that just sounds like a cheap shot to me.

It smacks, like a lot of the article, of elitism, of sneering and snobbery.

Blogging will no doubt always have a place as an underground medium in closed societies; but for those in the west trying to blog their way into viable businesses, the economics are daunting.

I think that blogging is complementary to both existing media and business models. to focus on blogging as the gravedigger for old media is silly and over-simplifying things. But not just in "closed" societies like Iran and, as he implies, the United States...

Connected media, convergence of technologies and media, real changes in the means of production and distribution of media those are the things that are undermining the old status quo. The reason that, as Niall Cook points out, the FT is still loss-making, that ITV's revenues are falling, and a hundred other tales of media woe and disruption that crowd the business pages.

: : Almost more than the article itself, I was interested in a comment Mr Butterworth makes on the blog he set up to debate the article:

A tiny percentage of Americans are using blogging as a way to interact with elites. In other words, blogging has produced claques. ( I suspect the elites are paying attention because blogging has been so overhyped in the U.S. media, but nevermind. Are these claques agitating for some major social cause like the civil rights movement? I don't think so. I doubt future historians will point to the role the blogoshpere played in the "struggle" for gay marriage.

Claques, cheerleaders with a mob mentality, are a danger of group conversations like blogs - the old echo-chamber effect that is sometimes discussed, that distorts the reality of influence and importance in online communities. It seems that way sometimes when you compare, say, Technorati's authority ratings or PubSub's lists with more rigorous research into influence such as Onalytica's studies (more on this one about business blogging later).

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Comments

Hi,

I agree with your point about Butterworth's attitude being rather superior and elitist (although he made some good points). I think his is an attitude that's prevalent among many hacks who I think miss the point when they dismiss blogging as the maunderings of bores and hobbyists.

I've been writing a blog for Times Online's Enterprise section for a few months now (see URL). What is fascinating me (and scaring me) as a journalist used to writing in the bubble of print (where you never had any real idea who was reading your work and whether they were interested in what you had to say or not) is the utter accountability of it. You know instantly how many readers you have and how many comments they have made.

It's an obvious point, but I think it has huge significance for journalists and editorial content.

Surely the advent of such a transparent two way medium will have a profound an effect on the way all journalists operate. The fact that online advertising is so precisely measurable is shaking up the sales operations of the media giants. It seems inevitable to me that blogging (hate the word) in all its forms wil have a similarly disruptive effect on the editorial side.

Andrew,
You make such a good point about accountability. I didn't think of that, But, of course, traditional journalists don't have any way of knowing who is reading their stuff. Hardly any provide even an email address to which comments could be made. I guess it doesn't matter that much to most journalist because they are simply earning their living, writing the copy, and there is always another copy deadline to meet. If I was a journalist, I might be the same.
Your comparison with online advertising is brilliant.
This is the first blog I've been on where the FT article is being discussed. If the article sucks in people like yourself who know what it's like to be a journalist, I'll be the better educated.

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