Do blogs spell the end of moderated opinion? As expected, internet enthusiasts say “yes”. The destiny of the World Wide Web is to end hierarchical, corporate control over the content and dissemination of knowledge, and the glorious reality – as far as editorial and analysis is concerned – is nothing less than the liberation of the opinionated from the oppressive control of toady, petty and uncomprehending editors.
Some Australian editors, not to mention relatively savvy members of the intelligentsia, appear to have bought the “end is nigh” story, much as they did the reports – greatly exaggerated it turned out – of the death of print news from the internet (and before that television) and the death of radio from podcasting.
The reality is that the net is the medium, not the message. Yes, the World Wide Web enables opinion and analysis to be distributed to consumers in different ways. However, insofar as there really is an audience wanting to consume informed opinion and analysis, there is no logical reason to suppose changes in the way such content can be disseminated should impact in absolute terms – either negatively or positively – on demand for the content.
Can personal blogs (web diaries or logs) posted free-of-charge on the web meet this demand? Are they doing so already, increasingly cannibalising audiences which currently consume – and pay for either by subscription or by viewing ads – editor-moderated opinion and analysis on radio, TV, newspapers and news magazines distributed both in hard copy and on line (enabling links and interactive reader comments)?
With one important caveat, my judgement on both questions is “no”. When they do their job well, editors provide a valuable service to time-poor readers struggling to remain informed citizens in an information-dense world. Valuable enough, that they will continue to seek it out and, where necessary, pay for it. That service is the sorting and selecting of opinion and analysis on the basis of priority (the top stories of the day), “mix” (diversity of subject) and quality (the best-written stories by the people most likely to know something about the issue). It also includes packaging the product so it is visually appealing and – because paragraphs are plentiful, words are spelled properly and sentences are grammatical – easy to read.
Personal blogs can be well written and provide considered and informed opinion by those with the experience and knowledge to offer consumers considerable insight into the subject to hand. However, once we get past the giddiness of the gateless access available to both writers and readers, we may be able to be honest enough to admit that some are semi-literate rants by myopic, racist, sexist and and/or homophobic cretins with tickets on themselves and barrows to push. At least these are easy to spot. The blogs I worry about are those lacking the “danger Will Robinson” alert signs: written in spare and polished prose, posted on expensive well-designed sites yet evidencing what can only be described as a tenuous grasp of logic and a hostile relationship with the facts.
Of course, individuals with time to burn can do their own vetting of blogs on topics where they have enough expertise to know when someone else is out of their depth (My education and experience allows me to spot a pseudo-feminist or a quack ethicist at 20 paces). However, like most others, I am defenceless in the face of well-written views on topics about which I am curious but largely uninformed. Editorial oversight is one of the processes that prevents the publication of well-packaged pseudo-knowledge – much of the time, anyway.
Which, amidst the now deafening howls of protest, takes me to the caveat. Yes, vetting by editors is one process for guaranteeing us that some degree of veracity attaches to the content we are spending our hard-earned time consuming, but it is not the only one. For proof of this, we need look no further than the collective and demonstrably reliable editing process used to moderate contributions to online encyclopaedia. My claim is about the ongoing value in today’s world, and worlds to come, of moderated opinion and analysis, even in a cyber-universe where personal blogs are ubiquitous and priced to sell. Currently, traditional editorial practices are one of the only ways we’ve got to achieve reasonable levels of accuracy, veracity, and good clean copy. In the future, equally reliable ways may, and indeed are predicted, to emerge. Those that will be preferred by future consumers of analysis and opinion is anyone’s guess.
But here is mine.
What contemporary blogophiles advance as the benefit of their preferred medium is the weakness of opinion moderated by a handful of mostly pale, male and stale editors. Blogs empower those marginalised or excluded by traditional editorial gate-keeping processes. These include the young, the female, the queer, the non-White and those from non-Christian backgrounds: groups comprising growing minorities – and in some cases outright majorities – in Australian society
In the past, justice was the justificatory principle behind demands by such groups for greater representation in the creative engine room of Australian culture, including among those who interpret the news. In the era of blogs, it may be proprietorial self-interest that finally sees things change.
In the new world of opinion and analysis, who minds the gate? The Age