Sunday, January 27, 2008

This is Not a Blog (re: NYRB)

Mary L. Dudziak

An interesting picture of the blog world emerges from Sarah Boxer's essay "Blogs," in the February 14 issue of the New York Review of Books, now on-line and in your mailbox. What are blogs like? A characteristic feature is bloggy writing. According to Boxer, "Bloggers thrive on fragmented attention and dole it out too....And if they can't put quite the right inflection on a sentence, they'll often use an OMG (Oh my god!) or an emoticon, e.g., a smiley face :-) or a wink ;-) or a frown :-( instead of words." How do blogs operate? "The law of the blogosphere is Hobbesian: survival of the snarkiest." What are bloggers like? "Bloggers have fouler mouths, tougher hides, and cooler thesauruses than most of the people I've read in print." They are fixated on superheroes. Their writing is "grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty."
OMG! What am I doing wrong? (LOL).
There are, thankfully, many corners of the blogosphere. It doesn't paint an accurate picture to collapse us all into the sort of writing we may have enjoyed in 6th grade. To characterize the blog world this way is something like writing an essay on literature, but only taking up the romance novel. The kind of blogs Boxer writes about are an important cultural innovation (whether we like them or not), and there are common attributes across genres -- most importantly the issue of connection with sources in the rest of the web, something that has not yet effectively come to the on-line versions of traditional journalism. Even Boxer's essay lacks links to the blogs she mentions.

The blog world is also a place for writers who have things to say that won't make it into a newspaper, and sometimes things that need to be said more quickly than a print publication cycle would allow. Blogs like this really are blogs, not some second category of writers who don't have the hang of the genre yet.

Boxer's essay mentions, but does not really engage, a list of blog-related books, including Daniel Solove's important new work, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale University Press). Others are: We've Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture, ed. John Rodzvilla (Basic Books); Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by Lee Siegel (Spiegel and Grau); 2.0 by Cass R. Sunstein (Princeton University Press); Blogwars by David D. Perlmutter (Oxford University Press); We're All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age by Scott Gant (Free Press); Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World by Hugh Hewitt (Nelson Books); The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen (Doubleday/Currency); Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel (Wiley); Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture by David Kline and Dan Burstein.
[More links to follow later -- this blogger has an off-line deadline today! ;-)]
Cross-posted from the Legal History Blog.


What the old media elites fear and despise more than anything else is the democratic nature of blogs. They just can't bear the notion that "just anyone" can publish their opinions without their imprimatur. After all, they are the Serious guardians of taste, culture, and politics. On this score, the NYT has some of the most unbearably smug, patronizing, self-important writers on the planet. And as they become more and more irrelevant, they become more and more desperate and shrill.

I for one can't wait until the NYT goes bankrupt. ;-) LOL. OMG!

I remember my first experience with this web thing. I was in a chemistry library doing research. This consists of reading articles and following footnotes to other articles, over-and-over. Footnotes are extremely important to reality based literature. They provide context and pay homage to the origin of your ideas. It humbles the author and enlightens the reader. But in this library, in the early '90s there was a computer that had some hypertext. Within the text there were little footnote marks, you could click on them! Wow!

This anti-blog article appears to be the opposite of this tradition. Focus on your own great writing and don't link to anything, like the idea was all yours...nobody ever thought of it before. Hubristic, elitist, close-minded.

Print is dead.

- Egon, Ghostbusters.

Rail as one might, its inevitable. Not, of course, the end of printed materials, but of the industry and subsequent hierarchy dependent on it udders. I would suggest that what frightens the publishing industry is not the disappearance of print as such, but the loss of control. If they could control who blogs and who doesn't, they'd feel so much better. I can't think of the last time that the flow of information was unfettered like it has been with the Internet.

As a ranger I once knew would say, "Adapt and survive". This looks a little like "marginalize the change and take another breath".



I'm always amused by people who think that somehow bloggers will fill the space of, say, English language reporting on Chinese politics, which is the kind of reporting that requires:
- investment in a foreign correspondent office;
- knowledge on the part of the foreign correspondent of local history, culture and language;
- a respected distribution channel for people with a general interest in world politics who wouldn't bother to keep up with a blog that specialized in that area;
- etc., etc.

As the article points out, many blogs achieve notoriety either by being a clearinghouse with little substantive content contributed by the author (e.g., Instapundit) or by dogging the mainstream media (e.g. Little Green Footballs) or by just writing things that a newspaper quite reasonably wouldn't publish, like personal sex gossip (e.g. Washingtonienne/ Wonkette).

It's great that we have these additional outlets to summarize, critique or exist where the MSM dare not go, but they are by no means substitutive for the NYT. I continue to be puzzled why bloggers who declare the NYT to be utterly worthless bother reading it at all. Why give it the hits and links? If it's so useless, it will die its own death through the wisdom of the market.

Oops, that should have been


I'm always amused by people who think that somehow bloggers will fill the space of, say, English language reporting on Chinese politics

It is funny that you should choose this example. I lived in China for more than 5 years, and I can tell you without any reservation that the best English language reporting on Chinese politics (and China generally) comes from bloggers who have lived and worked in China for long periods of time -- and who actually speak the language. The drive-by "journalism" that many of the major news organizations practice in China is pathetic. A lot of them send reporters there who understand absolutely nothing about China and Chinese culture and who usually can't speak a word of Chinese. They sit in Shanghai and Beijing and file the same three stories over and over and over. And, of course, you can always count on the likes of Friedman and Brooks to show up there for all of four days and pontificate on China's "rise."

There are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, it is the China blogs (like ESWN and Danwei, to name just two) and not the mainstream press that is covering China the way it ought to be covered.


Uh, yeah, I know. Please point out where I said otherwise.

As for reading the NYT, I don't anymore, so I guess I'm doing my part to kill the monster.


I thought you might be confused, considering that you were talking about the old media's fearing and despising the democratic nature of blogs, then moved without so much as a paragraph break to complaining of the NYT's writers -- even though the supposed blog-hater (someone who actually edited a book compiling blog posts) under discussion was from the NYRB.

And since you're complaining of the Times and claiming that the MSM writers, unlike the bloggers, don't live and work in China for a long period of time nor speak the language, let's look at the Times's China news coverage. (Again, distinguishing opinion, which blogs manage fine, from actual news reporting.)

Latest non-wire article on China: "Plan to Extend Shanghai Rail Line Stirs Middle Class to Protest." Author: Howard W. French. Googling his name reveals that he lives in Shanghai and has been bureau chief there since 2003, is fluent in Mandarin (along with French, Spanish, Japanese), and studied East Asian affairs at the University of Hawaii. His article features quotes from -- OMG -- actual Chinese people!

Your linked blogs seem fine, but they are not substitutive. Half of Danwei's posts use the same MSM you deem useless as sources; a post on the death of Mao's tutor (the top post at the moment) cites Reuters, the NYT and Time magazine.

ZonaEuropa consists mostly of translations from Chinese-language media and blogs -- as a press piece says, "His forte is quick summaries of Chinese news stories and near-real time translations of Chinese Web postings or other documents making headlines." Which is great. I am very happy about people's volunteering their time to make information more accessible -- Wikipedia also is admirable in this respect.

But it's still not original reporting. It's still not interviewing. It's still not a replacement for what the news media does.

It's funny that you choose as examples two blogs that are so indebted to the mainstream media of China and other nations.

I have seen very few successful blogs that attempt to do original reporting. This costs money. I give Michelle Malkin credit for being willing to get off her butt and go peer in Democrats' windows and talk to their neighbors to figure out if they deserve health care. But this kind of full-time blog reporting is possible only if one has an existing source of income (Malkin was a syndicated columnist before she started a blog).

I write a blawg, but I've had perhaps three that feature what I would consider original reporting, i.e. I actually went somewhere and then wrote about what I saw. A Supreme Court oral argument, a few judges' and professors' speeches. I've never made an outlay of money to travel in order to report for my blawg; I've never interviewed someone for my blawg. I have done less journalism for it than I did as an opinion columnist in college, when my editor would force me to talk to people on campus to get quotes.

Many bloggers are less lazy than I am, but not by much. I don't know of a blogger who reports every Supreme Court oral argument, for example, or who camped out in Delaware for the Disney trial, or who has gone to Gitmo to see conditions there firsthand. With Gitmo, it's partly a problem of access, one that is gradually lifting as bloggers become recognized as journalists -- indeed, in their relative unaccountability, as scarier people to offend than inside-the-Beltway types. But there's also the problem of time and money.

What we're actually seeing is not a replacement of mainstream media news reporting by blogs, but the more successful bloggers' being recruited to the existing media outlets.

For a real taste of the 100,000,000 blogs, just go to the top of the Balkanization page and click on "next blog". It carries you from one to the next, and an amazing array they are.


>>It's still not a replacement for what the news media does.

You are setting up quite a straw man here. I never argued that the "news media" should be abolished or replaced by blogs. What I did argue was that there is a palpable fear in the old guard media of phenomena like blogs because they encroach on their control of the conversation and puncture their feelings of superiority and entitlement.

>>Author: Howard W. French.

Well, since I said no journalists in China speak Chinese nor have spent significant amounts of time there, the counter-example you were able to google up just decimated my entire argument! Oh. Then again, I didn't say that. Ok, that's two straw men.

>>I give Michelle Malkin credit

This isn't helping your credibility any.

Regarding the Chinese blogs:

>>cites Reuters, the NYT and Time magazine.

Again, this is devastating to my argument, since I clearly argued that blogs should never link to nor cite any newspapers. You might consider the fact that a lot of blogs cite, discuss, and criticize the coverage of established news outlets. For example, pointing out how biased and uninformed their coverage often is. Does this further prove the indispensability of any particular old media journalist? (i.e., "But bloggers couldn't point out how wrong the coverage of the old media is if there were no old media coverage!" -- seems to buttress your case.)

Regarding “interviewing” and original reporting on Danwei and ESWN, you are simply wrong. Both have done original interviews – yes, actually going somewhere with a video camera (*gasp*), for example. It is a little odd that you herald Howard French’s “quotes” from “actual Chinese people” but dismiss the translation work of ESWN, who actually provides context and complete translations of articles and (*shudder*) blog posts by actual Chinese people. Not sure why Howard French’s “quotes” are more valuable. In the case of ESWN in particular, he has directly influenced coverage of China in the English mainstream press in several instances.

If I can return to my original point that is getting lost in your army of straw men: a segment of the established mainstream media fears and despises blogging because it challenges the exclusivity of their club, not to mention their bottom lines. Some segments of the media are more egregiously elitist, snooty, and panicked than others. In my opinion, the NYT is one of the worst offenders on this score. Of course there are things that large media conglomerates and corporations can do that bloggers and other individuals cannot do; I never argued otherwise. What I did argue was that in the particular example you gave (China), I have found blogs to be a much more reliable, well-informed, and balanced source of reporting on events in China than the mainstream press.

In the end, it is best to judge each writer by their own particular merits and stock of credibility, instead of obsessing over media credentials and who is or isn’t wearing a bathrobe while they are typing up their articles. Balkinization is a case in point. I am not an attorney. But I am more well-informed about legal issues through reading this blog than I would wager anyone could be by reading the New York Times or any other particular newspaper.



"Some segments of the media are more egregiously elitist, snooty, and panicked than others. In my opinion, the NYT is one of the worst offenders on this score."

And this sentiment is why I thought perhaps you believed the NYRB was part of the NYT. What is it about the NYT that makes you think it is "panicked" about blogs? Even its regular columnists have taken to embedding links to a variety of sites in their writing; they have several blogs on the site, some of which recruit people who weren't professional journalists to write for them; the NYT Co. itself is investing in WordPress. The NYT's news reporting basically mocks companies that refuse to engage with blogs: "Could Target, the ever-hip, contemporary retailer, really have such a low opinion of blogs, the ever-hip, contemporary media channel?"

If this is panic over blogs, what would support for blogs look like?

I'm always struck by the hyperbolic response to blogs and other 'net entities. Perhaps it's merely the same old marketing exaggeration, but look at the titles of those books Prof. Dudziak lists in her third paragraph: "...Changing Our Culture," "...Changing Your World," "...Changing the Way...," "...the Electronic Mob," "Blogwars," "We're All Journalists...," "Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture," and so forth. What's with this? Why this unmeasured exceptionalism over a technology that has really very slowly evolved during our lifetimes, and that continues to evolve too slowly for my satisfaction? The fact of emoticons or shameless public snarkiness is hardly a symptom of a revolution.

Can't resist a link that puts all of my points together: The NYTimes writing on China's crackdown on dissidents, and quoting blogs as a way to note public sentiment on the issue.

I suspect the people who reflexively trash the NYTimes, and assume that because they themselves like blogs, the Times must hate them, have been reading too much InstaPundit.

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