The Sinoblogospheric conversation

Online discourse is a cacophony that leads to clarity.

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 14, 2005 12:57AM (EST)

Roland Soong is a Hong Kong blogger whose site, EastSouthWestNorth, is popular with journalists who cover China because it features prolific translations of Chinese-language news articles.

I first started paying attention to him when Michael Turton, a Taiwan-based blogger I check in with regularly, took issue with Soong's appraisal of the Taiwanese news scene. As exhibit A, Turton linked back to his own detailed response to an article translated by Soong that strongly criticized Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian.

I'll leave aside the subtleties of Taiwanese politics and the various accusations of bias at play in this blogger dialogue for now. Suffice to say, the meta-level of press criticism on display grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Some 15 years ago I wrote my master's thesis on the post-martial law Taiwanese press, an effort that required spending hundreds of hours in university libraries laboriously translating news articles. Back then, just locating an article that itself analyzed the Taiwanese press was a major feat of research derring-do. But today, without ever leaving my seat, I can plunge myself as deeply as I want into arcane deconstructions of Sinological media.

I bring this up because it highlights an odd paradox of the Internet information age, and also helps to explain why I've made my own plunge into the blogosphere. At Salon, we have a recurring conversation that is doubtless taking place in countless other newsrooms across the world. Newspapers are in decline. Circulation is dropping year-on-year, the average age of the readership is rising, and classified ad revenue is plummeting, stolen away by the Web. What will happen, we wonder, when newspapers start to fail entirely? Who then will pay for investigative reporting, for the kind of newsgathering that costs real money?

And yet, right now, as an information consumer, I have access to more information, more analysis, more news than ever before. Go back to Michael Turton's site and look at the right-hand column. There are nearly 300 English-language blogs there covering every imaginable aspect of Taiwan as seen through an English-speaker's eye. And, of course, that is just a fraction of the Chinese-language materials available on Taiwan, which in turn is but a tiny sliver of the Web that is devoted to China at large.

The struggle to manage this information flow is endless. I am constantly tweaking my blog aggregator, fine-tuning my Google News alerts, on the prowl for mailing lists and Web sites that provide valued-added filters to all the data points blurted out in this howling maelstrom of a conversation. I bore everyone I know by telling them endlessly that I can keep better track of current Taiwanese politics and society now via bloggers than I could when I lived physically on the island.

This information curve has been pointed straight up since I first got online in a serious way in the summer of 1993. It is inconceivable to me that at some point it will start to move in the other direction. Indeed, my own decision to join the blogosphere is in large part motivated by the realization that making sense of the online conversation taking place now is a full-time job.

I realize that people who have come of age in the Internet era may find my effusiveness quaint. I am also fully aware that Sturgeon's Law applies to the Internet just as it does everything else, and that 90 percent of all blogs (at least) are crap. But that's why we need filters, and filters on the filters, and filters on the filters on the -- well, you get the point. The conversation that is online discourse is a multivoiced, multisourced labyrinth of eyewitness accounts, academic analysis, propaganda, invective, evangelism, and good old-fashioned news reporting. It's a million, a billion, Michael Turtons taking issue with a million, billion Roland Soongs, all annotated with a million, billion footnotes. Somehow, it all adds up to something that gets awfully close to the truth.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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