Blogs: views from independent minds

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Nov 26 2005, 06:40am hrs
Just when we thought that e-mails were the best social good to result from the internet revolution, blogs, those unstructured and uncontrolled mixture of news, views and rants by individuals, offer a new and exciting transformation in society. According to industry estimates, almost 70,000 new blogs are created every day, or roughly a new one every second.

This phenomenon is most pronounced in the US where, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, about 9% of adult internet users in the US have created their own blogs, and about 25% read them. Their influence is increasingly manifest: Craigslist from San Fransisco is now the seventh most visited site in the US, some of the major political scoops of recent days, like the Plamegate affair, were done by bloggers and not by the mainstream media. Going back in time, it was a blogger, Matt Drudge, whose blogsite now rivals major newspapers in viewership, who first revealed Bill Clintons affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Clearly, intelligent and well-researched blogs can deliver a sideways blow, if not a knockout punch, just as effectively as any intrepid investigative reporter. They still rank well behind traditional television, radio, and newspaper outlets as a source of news, but they are gaining ground rapidly. In the US, both political parties are now engaging bloggers with great eagerness in order to have them on their side.

In October, House Republicans convened the first ever Capitol Hill Blog Row where a number of selected bloggers were invited for discussions with top Republican figures for half a day. The Democrats, who have an older and closer foray into this world because most active and passionate bloggers tend to be liberal rather than conservative, have already set up an internet department to get their message out to blogs.

However, the word of blogs has many rough edges. Many blogs are a hotchpotch of reactions and fixations, while even the good ones cannot really compete with big media on resources and investigative reach. However, the very transparency of these faults makes it easy to judge whether a blog is worth a read or not. Unlike newspapers, it is nearly impossible for blogs to hide their biases behind pretentious claims or lineage. As Jeff Jarvis, an American media executive, who moonlights as a blogger, says: Big media has to learn to be more honest, to level with its public and to reveal its prejudices as bloggers do. In fact, there are many well-written political and diplomatic blogs, at least in the western world, like Instapundit or Dailykos or Danieldrezner, that can and do compete honourably with the likes of CNN or New York Times, especially in insightful commentary.

One edge blogs have is their appeal as free voices working outside excessive control or arrogance. Andrew Sullivan, a popular columnist, whose successful blog has recently shifted to the Time magazine website, explained the deal this way: I will continue to write simply what I believe or think, however misguided I may be. I will continue to correct any errors in the full light of day and change my mind if new events demand it or new facts compel it. I will try and air counter-arguments as often as possible. In other words: the essence of the blog wont change.

In India, this trend is yet to arrive in the huge way it has abroad. This is all the more surprising since blogs seem a perfect companion for a society that is both argumentative and politically alive. Though there are a few good blogs doing the round, like The Acorn, Sepia Mutiny and GreatBong, most active ones are run by computer or management graduates for discussing job opportunities. But things are changing, and recently a self-acclaimed professor of management was unmasked as a fraud, thanks to incessant blog inputs by his students.

What lies in the future, and how does it impact us here First, blogs will eventually force mainstream media, even in India, to pay attention if not homage. Neither will replace the other, but big media will have to relearn a few essentials, especially about honesty. Steve Outing, from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, commented in a recent article, one significant difference between mainstream journalism and blogging is the way each handles its mistakes.. (bloggers) prominently post corrections to errors, publishing them quickly. In comparison, mainstream media seldom, if ever, acknowledges its faults.

Second, the world of political and social blogs, at least in the US or in major Asian and European countries, is already very professional, and this presents Indian thinkers and policymakers an alternate entry point for studying local trends in various parts of the world, perhaps even another way to actively garner intellectual support for Indian positions on diplomatic issues.

Overall, blogs are an exciting new genre, best described as citizen journalism, that can enlarge public debates beyond the elite, act as a media watchdog and generally create a culture of critical thought. Maybe not the best thing since sliced bread, but a pretty nifty invention nevertheless. And we can all own a piece of it.

The writer is editor, India Focus