The new blogocracy

The mainstream media is doing its best to belittle Democratic Convention bloggers, but the arrival of a host of online scribblers is reinvigorating, and challenging, old-school journalism.

Published July 28, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Bloggers have invaded the Democratic National Convention, and the mainstream media is reacting. Trivializing them as "Web diarists," the New York Times compared convention bloggers to journalists but emphasized their lack of experience in interacting with primary sources and quoted a professor who suggests "that bloggers have put the issue of professionalism under attack." The Wall Street Journal focused on the up-and-coming nature of blogging in both news and politics, while Wired is chronicling the mainstream obsession with blogging. In a convention without standout storylines, the bloggers are a mysterious spectacle.

And not just for the traditional media. The blogosphere is also happily commenting on its own presence, significance and role. Blogging is a relatively young phenomenon, and its growing pains and identity search are ever transparent. The tendency of bloggers to talk about blogging is often criticized, yet this practice of self-reflection is precisely what makes blogging a valuable contribution to public discourse. Bloggers are highly critical, questioning creatures. Whatever their subject, they document their observations and examine them inquisitively.

In Boston, the subject is the convention -- the event, not necessarily the content. Bloggers are documenting the step-by-step procedures of being at the convention, the backstage scene, the ways in which journalists are trying to teach them to behave like journalists, and generally, the blogger's role at the convention.

At the convention, the bloggers are piquing everyone's curiosity because, unlike the thousands of journalists who have also descended on the Fleet Center, they aren't entrenched in the culture they are observing. Thus they see, and allow us to see, the convention from a new perspective.

As a practice, journalism espouses an air of objectivity, purporting to cover all sides of a debate, equally and with emotional distance. While few believe that journalists are unbiased, it is considered a respectable aim of the profession and readers expect them to be as objective as possible. Bloggers, on the other hand, have no such cultural code and their readers rarely hold them accountable for objectivity. In fact, what makes blogging confusing for many is that the practices encompassed by that term are quite diverse.

There appear to be four primary conceptual paradigms that frame blogging: 1) journalism; 2) diarying or journaling; 3) note passing; 4) fieldbook note taking. Everyone is trying to make sense of blogging by stuffing it into one of these paradigms, but in fact, it is a new practice that transcends all four while drawing on aspects from all of them. The first two paradigms are the most common: The press is constantly comparing blogging to diary writing. The comparison is problematic because it suggests that blogging can be evaluated on those terms. In order to signify the difference between blogging and "real journalism," it is not that surprising that the New York Times drudges up connotations of 13-year-old girls writing about their lives. It helps to belittle the role of convention bloggers who have been given the same press credentials as reporters.

Properly evaluating the role of bloggers at the convention requires escaping the most obvious framing paradigms. One significant value of convention blogging stems from the self-reflection rooted in the culture. When I open the New York Times, I expect to read articles that capture the key facts and information about a situation. I expect that everything known will be conveyed and that nothing will be hidden for political purposes. I am often disappointed in this expectation. When I read blogs, I don't have these expectations. Instead, I expect to find the nuances, the backstories, the opinions, all framed in a self-critical, culturally critical individual voice. In other words, I expect to read a different perspective, one fully grounded in the biases of the writer.

Perspective is important because it challenges objectivity; it provides the context in which you can read the purportedly objective accounts of an event. There is no single blog that I read to gain an alternative perspective to that of the mainstream media. Instead, I check in with Technorati's politics feed and leave the Blogger convention feed running next to me. Through these, I can monitor the blogospheric buzz, the collective reflections of the crowd. These are not substitutes for my daily dose of the Times; they are simply tools that offer another perspective -- that of anyone who wants to share.

Blogging will not replace traditional journalism, but it presents a threat to the normative press culture and an opportunity for radical reporting. Bloggers do place the issue of professionalism under attack, not by being unprofessional, but by exposing the ways in which the media operates. As blogging reaches the masses, people are introduced to information that was not reported because it did not suit the party line. Bloggers will happily document the power games that they witness in the press room and will expose future Jayson Blairs. Bloggers also capture information that the mainstream press does not yet realize is valuable, which means that ambitious and digitally minded journalists are constantly scanning the blogs for information. More and more, journalists are thanking bloggers for new slants. The competition between journalists and bloggers for readers' attention results in more diverse and compelling coverage.

Bloggers at the Democratic National Convention signify a shift in media, but not a replacement for mainstream coverage. Their role will be to fill in the gaps, expose the underlying magic, and keep everyone on their toes. What they are doing cannot be compared to journalism; it can only be described as blogging.

By danah boyd

danah boyd is a Ph.D student at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies sociable media. She also blogs at apophenia.

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