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Radical chic and the 'train

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Opinion Blogs are almost as old as the web, and I'm sure they'll survive anything.

In recent weeks - three years into the blogging phenomenon - they've been discovered by the mainstream inkies, and just as rapidly, pronounced to be on the decline. But I'm beginning to wonder if Blogs can survive their own triumphalism.

The Blogwaggon is being loaded with the same populist meme that eventually made P2P an unmentionable, and in many cases it's the same power-to-the-people radical chic that we've heard about the Net for almost a decade, only in new clothes.

Enter John Dvorak, who recently spelled out the obvious (that most blogs were filled with self-referential trivia) and then dared take the sacred cow of the blog vanguard - the pretentious airport-stand marketing book The Cluetrain Manifesto - to task this week.

Cluetrain is harmless stuff - it's been described to us as "Candide without the irony" - but it has been hugely successful in achieving its prime goal, which is to raise the profile of its authors.

However the reaction to Dvorak's gadfly comments has been highly instructive. (Dvorak is cited approvingly in the book itself, we note).

Chris Locke, the leading 'trainer and a brilliant self-publicist, wasn't going to miss this opportunity: he called Dvorak a pederast, a remark our friend Dave Winer gleefully repeated. The I Love Me, Vol 1 blog recommended Dvorak should be boiled down to make glue. The more urbane 'trainers, Dave Weinberger and Doc Searls, kept their cool, although our friend the Doc (who's a real gent, and who'd altready contributed wise words to an earlier draft of this article) commended blogs as a mechanism for unleashing bird shit on critics. Blogs were the people's distributed Guano-thrower.

Pomp and circumstance

What did Dvorak do to upset them? Well, he wasn't attacking the substance of the marketing book, as such. But he was fulfilling a mission which all satirists should have, which is to lampoon the pompous and the pretentious. Commentators and journalists first goal should be attack the powerful, but pomposity is simply an unwarranted assumption of authority, and is an equally legitimate target. And there are few business screeds that are as pretentious, and full of their own self-importance as the "Manifesto".

But what we've seen is that the style of the Manifesto is perceived as an attack on the substance of the book itself. This could lead the innocent to conclude that the book is all style and no substance. Which isn't strictly fair, but in the case of Cluetrain, the medium has become the message. Cluetrain has an iconic status with the blogging vanguard, because it is so self-consciously "revolutionary" and because on a meta-level, it mirrors (rather than echoes) the familiar pomo theme of subversive consumption.

I first became aware of how seductive this had become for the academic left, ten years ago, when I was being quizzed by an undergraduate while walking home from Maine Road football ground. I was asked if I'd be going to a nightclub later, and co-incidentally, the answer was yes, I would: this being England where the licensing laws mean the pubs empty at 11pm, and specifically this was Manchester: where every third warehouse was a nightclub, and where, if you wanted to meet socially after dark, you'd go. Even if like me, you were a lead-footed shuffler.

My two answers were received with great joy. By going to a football match and a nightclub, I was told, I'd participated in two subversive, nay revolutionary acts, roughly on a par with Lenin's purge of the Mensheviks.

Crumbs, I thought. All this time the Trots had been telling us that to overthrow the capitalist hegemony we needed to organize and educate, but all along, all we really needed to do was keep drinking! R-right on!

The blog-as-empowerment meme is very similar. Only this time, Big Media will crumble if we can just blog that little bit harder.

Bollogs

Now as you might expect, no one wishes Big Media to fall as much as us. It's often self-censoring, vain and hugely insecure: witness the countless guilds and the thousands of awards that journalists here give themselves, almost it seems, on an hourly basis. A journalism that strives for the social respectability of say the legal profession (stop laughing there, at the back!) is almost certainly one that isn't doing its job.

Much of the best journalism has been done by "amateurs", who'd sooner sell a kidney than accept one of these useless trinkets. (Europeans hacks refer derisively to the "Gong and Guild Circuit"). My own inspiration was Manchester's Mike Don, who published the underground paper Mole Express for several years, and was the classic gumshoe investigative journalist. But independents needn't be self-consciously "underground". A distinguished predecessor was Claud Cockburn, who published the news-sheet The Week in the 1930s: which was considered by embassies and mandarins as the most accurate insight into the machinations of the British Empire, as it then was. (The Week is credited by Richard Ingrams as being the inspiration for the original Private Eye).

A journalist's true role is like that of the soil microbe, turning things over, exposing stuff, bringing in oxygen. Find a hack who aspires to a greater social status than that of bacteria, and you're in trouble. But the blogs are beginning to mirror the vanity of the name hacks, and getting just as prickly under criticism.

But Cockburn's most famous aphorism, "never believe anything until it has been officially denied," has been traduced to "never write anything until you've got two analyst quotes," which one of the things that makes any kind of half-decent blog look so refreshing. It really does.

One thing we've noticed when arguing back against "blogs will replace journalism" is how narrow that definition of journalism becomes, once you take up the cudgels.

Let's discount the op-ed pages, the color pieces and the lifestyle padding, and you're left with news. Defined as "new stuff" that somebody doesn't want you to know. How many blogs break news? A few, for sure, but a tiny proportion.

That's because breaking news is hard work, and requires particular skills quite different to the polemical qualities needed for a popular blog, and sustaining a story under pressure also requires some authority. And not a little courage from editors.

If I was in a position of power, I'd be delighted to see news reporters supplanted by blogs, because blogs - for all their empowerment rhetoric - are far easier to divert and confuse than a few persistent and skillful reporters. Watergate took fifteen months to break, but a blog meme has a TTL (time to live) measured in hours, as it roars round the world, before the bloggers find a new novelty.

And, can we say Enron? Again, that was broken not by a blog but by an atypically curious and courageous reporter, and even then it took many months for the rest of the media to wake up. I seriously doubt that the blog effect would have been any better. A wise flak knows that there's no better way to discredit a web-generated story than by dissing it as a net.rumour.

Blogs are dispersed: they don't have a center of gravity, but that means authority wanes pretty rapidly too. The herd amplifies a sensational story, and then it moves on. Centralised media can hold out a little longer. It's axiomatic in techno/libertarian circles to argue for devolved networks and the hive mind. But when it comes to real news, you need authority first to hatch the story, then to propagate it

Hall of Mirrors

And shouting, even in a mighty chorus, doesn't increase your authority. This is where another positive aspect of blogs works against them as news-breakers. Even our favorite blogs are unapologetically self-referential. Dan links to Dave and Doc and Glen. Dave links to Dan and Doc and Glen. Doc links to JoHo, and so do Dave and Dan.

Now as it happens, all are esteemed journalists, (even if Dave is rightly more widely celebrated for his software, and Dan as well as being an old friend of The Register, is mandatory reading)

And that's the good stuff. The phenomenon is even more noticeable when you look at the rightist and libertarian attack blogs. ( I ought to point out most of my friends here are Republicans or libertarians, that's OK, I'm type "curious", but most are too disturbed at what's happening to the constitution to waste time savaging the Dems with partisan molotovs) From this self-referential hall of mirrors, very little light escapes.

(Robert Wyatt had a nice explanation of why he moved to Barcelona: "if you spend too long around people just like yourself, the windows steam up and turn into mirrors.")

The right's attack blogs are really a very efficient chain of routers, repeaters essentially, multiplying punditry about punditry. I can't think of one that is adding to the sum of human knowledge. (I learn things almost everyday at USS Clueless, but it draws on the author's wide reading, and I doubt if Steve would characterize Clueless as an attack blog. Unless you're French.). What worries me is that the cumulative effect actually diminishes the value of news (defined: new stuff [plural]) as they drive the fact/opinion ratio down through the floor.

So although I think blogs are succeeding in already showing what dismal, and cliquey spaces the op-ed pages really are, it's more of a reading phenomenon than a writing phenomenon.

So I can't accept the Doc's contention that ""blogging enlarges the circle that defines journalism and redistributes power outside the old center." For the stuff that matters - news - it gives the elites new tools with which to confuse and seduce.

Rip, Blog and Panic

Which brings us back to where we came in, and the anger at Dvorak's satirical mauling of the Cluetrain's power-to-the-people verbiage.

"Sure you can make the Cluetrain authors sound like bozos if you're willing to be a bozo yourself," wrote Winer, pejoratively, we think. But then we need satirists, people brave enough to look like bozos, if only to point out that the Emperor isn't really wearing a Che Guevara T-Shirt.

A marketing book with the message "talk to your customers, and maybe hang around in chat groups a bit more, that kind of thing" wouldn't have had half the visibility of one that promised the "end of business as we know it", and predicted new revolutionary vistas.

To be fair, only a few bloggers think they're shaking down Babylon, man, each type they smack the Return key.

To introduce a note of harmony into this catfight, we quote Doc Searls who described our argument like this:-

"In a way I hear you saying, 'show me the blade of grass that photosynthesizes more than a tree.' I can't. But a thick lawn beats a tree. What we have with blogs and journals are both,"

And we agree with much of what the good Doc says. But blogs don't axiomatically disperse power or weaken elites. They might eventually, but they'll do so by breaking news, and catalysing social phenomena. Blogs might yet win IT workers more paid holidays and stronger employment rights, stop the planet being polluted, or the intellecutal commons being poisoined, or the capital of American's pension funds being wasted on hair-brained con schemes. In time this could happen, and as romantics, like the Doc, we hope it does.

What Dvorak did this week, we suggest, was point out that revolutionary kudos needs to be earned, and isn't automatically conferred. This accusation pains the Cluetrainers as much it pains the pomo left, who as we described above, have come to believe that shopping, drinking and going to football matches are in themselves fabulously subversive.

And the reaction from the leading bloggers looks far more insecure than it needed to be, almost as insecure, we suggest, as the Big Media circuit, that erects a Guild every few yards, and gives its members an award on the hour.

Could it be that, as with the Manifesto, the only thing that's revolutionary is the proclamation that it's revolutionary? Once you burrow through the gonzo rhetoric from a pop-cultural polymath like marketing consultant Chris Locke (who transposes his own picture with that of Salvador Dali, and who sprinkles references to avant garde icons such as Roland Kirk, and anarchism) the only difference is that he says he's more revolutionary - "we're going to rip the fuckin' roof off!" - than the next marketing consultant, or you, or me. And that isn't enough. ®

Bootnote: As a sideline, we'll be starting a Editors Blog on our new US site, www.TheRegUS.com. We hope to continue this discussion there, as The Register is primarily a news site, and I'll get into terrible trouble if I don't writing some toot-sweet. (Yes - Ed.] We welcome your suggestions, technical or otherwise.

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