What is a blog, in 2013? More parlour than platform, perhaps

Bloggers can ‘speak truth to power’ as idiosyncratically as caricaturists  – An 1834 protest against corrupt clerics by the Swiss artist Martin Disteli: Wikimedia Commons

Bloggers are free to ‘speak truth to power’ as idiosyncratically as caricaturists
– an 1834 protest against corrupt clerics by the Swiss artist Martin Disteli: Wikimedia Commons

Blog posts can be as intentionally -- and unintentionally -- revealing about bloggers as parlour furnishing was about a house’s occupants

Blog posts can be as intentionally — and unintentionally — revealing about bloggers as parlour furnishing was about a house’s occupants

In 2013, a blog post — whether buoyant or morose — can tell you nothing about a blogger’s actual mood or state-of-life, unlike the exhibitionistic diaries that people originally thought web logs would be. The time has come to toss out stale do’s and don’ts about blog-running. A blog does not have to be run like a newspaper, newsletter or magazine for bloggers to supply information in the public interest . It can do its bit towards changing the world without round-the-clock, daily, or even regular posts – as long as it is written with care, and its existence is recognised by search bots.

It might or might not attract commenters, depending on whether a blogger has the time or inclination to chat with visitors and — on serious subjects that matter greatly — visitors’ willingness to risk looking foolish, or face the unintended consequences of comments discovered by their near-and-dear, employers or workmates.

Boosting site traffic is of keenest interest to bloggers blogging strictly in the hope of blog monetisation – which, as things stand, would mean that Florence Nightingale, if she were a contemporary, would have to shrink anything she had to say about medicine to thought-capsules insinuated between large nude ‘selfies’ in which strategically positioned cat pictures hid her peekaboo bits, all of this framed by cosmetics and fashion ads. She would need to devote rather more energy to luring ‘likes’ than to nursing.

It struck us that in 2013, although free – unmediated – expression is the aspect of blogs that gets the most attention, a blog today might be even more like a Victorian parlour than a soapbox or pulpit. But what was our idea of a parlour? A sort of outer sitting- or living-room, we thought – inviting, yes, but rather formal, and offering not so much statements as hints about the inner lives and passions of a household, for which it served as a sort of shield. It was mostly furnished in conformity with the taste of the era, epitomised by an ornamental, straight-backed chair. This is not to say that we think of blogs as typically stuffy or prissy – only that most bloggers are on sites hosted by the likes of WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr, using designs and organisation schemes that these hosts supply, which closely reflect contemporary taste.

But what of the original parlour, we wondered. The Wikipedia entry had this surprise – borrowed from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Parlour derives from the Old French word parloir — or parler (“to speak”), and entered English around the turn of the 13th century. In its original usage it denoted a place set aside for speaking with someone, an “audience chamber”.

We got curious, and dug further into ideas about the purpose parlours had served in the past. Should we forget all about Victorian parlours, now that we knew that they were relatively recent evolutions of a much older idea?

The parlour was of considerable interest to the Victorians … and it appears in Victorian genre painting and fiction as a newly significant space … [T]he parlour, whether in life or in art, is a site at which we can explore potentially explosive disturbances in psychic and social fields and can trace attempts both to articulate and resolve such differences.

The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study, Thad Logan, Cambridge University Press, 2001

Curiouser and curiouser. Very much like blogs, then – if Thad Logan’s suggestion is warranted, as we intend to find out when we read her book.

Net democracy: the great science magazines value readers’ comments, but a pop-sci counterpart shuts down discussions and criticism

Reader-commenters are vacuous birds of prey for some members of the media's old guard - drawing by Hugh Lofting 1886-1947

Reader-commenters: vacuous birds of prey, to media’s old guard
– drawing by Hugh Lofting (1886-1947)

‘My user names and passwords … ’ the wrinkly figure in the drawing wheezes at the heirs leaning over his bedside, in a recent addition to Private Eye’s ‘Modern Last Words’ series. ‘I want you to continue my work as the most hated troll on the internet.’

Trolls. Harpies. Brainless vultures. Vacuous attack dogs. Surprisingly often, it is not just the media’s old guard but political liberals in occupations unrelated to publishing – status-obsessed and change-resistant types – who froth at any mention of commenters on media web sites. As this blog began with a proposal for newspapers to evolve into sites partially owned by reader-commenters, we at post-Gutenberg have been flabbergasted by reflexive references to public debate in these spots as unintelligent – usually, from people who have never devoted enough time or effort to ‘below the line’ conversations to discover how often these are more informative than the articles or posts that initiate them.

Imagine how amused we were to learn from a New York Times report last week about the reactions from illustrious upmarket competitors of Popular Science to the news that this magazine was shutting down commenting on its web site altogether. This is hardly a move you would expect from a publication whose headlines appear to be written by a teenager desperate to win a popularity contest: ‘Giant Carnivorous Plant Found In Silicon Valley,’ for instance, or ‘Eating Yogurt Does Weird Things To Your Brain’.

Grave as a sermonising clergywoman, Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s ‘online content director’ justified the decision to return to print media’s traditional one-way dialogue:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.

It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it. Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters.

But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests …

Really. In a justification that  revealed the power of intelligent and articulate readers as her real fear – an argument that would delight dictatorships all over the world, she added:

[C]ommenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch. 

Her reasoning did not impress science magazines with a serious interest in science. Snippets from the NY Times story – for which that newspaper must be congratulated:

Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American: ‘I have to say I don’t think comments are bad for science. To a point I think it’s good when people talk about things and try their ideas out. Social media can go off the rails but I don’t think comments are worse than Twitter.’

Noah Gray, senior editor at Nature:

“There’s no doubt that uncivil discourse is bad for science,” Dr. Gray said by e-mail.

But, he said, comments can be very valuable, sometimes pointing out errors or alternative interpretations of the facts and theories presented in the article.

“The comments section can often express the openness of scientific debate,” Dr. Gray said, adding, “Removing this channel for feedback rather than exploring an alternative means to improve it simply ignores the problem.”

A reaction from a NY Times reader-commenter seemed especially apt:

Laird Wilcox, Kansas

I suspect that an individual’s capacity for objectivity depends upon their ability to entertain conflicting values, opinions and beliefs without feeling threatened by them. When you find someone who “can’t stand” another’s “ignorance” you may be dealing with an insecure bigort[sic] who fears contradiction or is woefully unsure of themselves.

But some egotistical old media professionals apparently cannot stand readers discussing their work as incisively as in this delicious exchange between Popular Science commenters – about a 2009 piece titled, ‘Could There Be A Planet Hidden On The Opposite Side Of Our Sun?: We ask a scientist who has peered around it.’

bdhoro87

04/20/2009 at 11:01 am

Behind the sun? This article is tempting me to use a lot of profanity. We travel to the other side of the sun and back every year, what does behind the sun mean? Behind the sun with respect to earth? So like where the Earth would be half a year from now? Or on a different axis or what? All logic tells me is the sun doesn’t have a front and behind… its pretty spherical and it rotates. Was this a search for a planet that maintains the exact orbit of earth but 180 degrees out of phase? Can someone please clarify how the sun could have “sides” and where “the other side of the sun” is?

Loschen

04/20/2009 at 12:07 pm

I’m guessing that what they mean is it revolves at the same speed as the earth but stays on the exact opposite side of the sun. Therefore, it is perpetually out of normal sight for earth. But, that’s just how I read and understood it. you’re right they didn’t do a very good job of clarifying…

qlmmb2086

04/20/2009 at 2:33 pm

One thing people need to realize about PopSci is that these are not scientific articles. It’s similar to, say, a CNN reporter writing an article on a scientific discovery; these are written by journalists, not scientists.

That having been said, this article does seem kind of pointless… Why bother debunking a theory about a hidden planet synchronized with earth’s orbit, when nobody thinks that anyhow? You may as well write an article to show that the earth isn’t flat.

… We can hardly type for laughing …

Bloggers’ rights, and blogging vs. traditional journalism: let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend

'Let a hundred schools of thought contend' postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Let a hundred schools of thought contend’
postgutenberg@gmail.com

'Let a hundred bloggers bloom' postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Let a hundred bloggers bloom’
postgutenberg@gmail.com

Blogging as one of our rights to free expression was the subject of an important and excellent ARTICLE 19 paper published earlier this month. ARTICLE 19 ‘is an international human rights organisation, founded in 1986, which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.’

Highlights — to some of which we have added extra emphasis, in italics:

Who is a blogger?

In the most basic sense, a blogger is any person who writes entries for, adds materials to, or maintains a ‘blog’ – a web log published on the Internet. Blogs allow anyone to self-publish online without prior editing or commissioning by an intermediary (e.g. someone like a newspaper editor). They can be immediate and also anonymous if the blogger so desires.

What matters most about the right to blog?

Blogging plays an invaluable role in the free flow of information worldwide. It enables a true exchange of information in ways that traditional media did not in the past. It also allows an immediate sharing of information with its audience and immediate feedback. It represents a valuable form of alternative journalism and is an example of the Internet’s ‘democratisation of publishing.’

In the 21st century, many bloggers will take their place as watchdogs, alongside traditional media. The international community and individual states must develop protection for bloggers, just as they have developed protection for traditional media, despite the many constraints. Throughout history, the traditional media have obtained protection as a group although, at the individual level, many members of the media are not concerned with advancing public interest. Similar protection must be provided to bloggers.

How are bloggers different from journalists?

ARTICLE 19 has long argued that ‘journalism’ and ‘journalists’ should not be defined by reference to some recognised body of training, or by affiliation with a media entity or professional body.5 We have argued that journalism is an activity that can be exercised by anyone, and that it is important that any legal standards and principles applicable to the activity should reflect this.

In particular, the definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

At the same time, any person who seeks to publish information on matters of public interest should benefit from the same protection and privileges given to professional journalists under existing case law, including prohibiting any requirement for journalists to be registered, requiring the authorities to investigate attacks on them, and protecting their sources.

Key recommendations

– Relevant legal standards should reflect the fact that ‘journalism’ consists

of disseminating information and ideas to the public by any means of communication. As such, it is an activity which can be exercised by anyone.

– Any definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad, to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

– Bloggers should never be required to obtain a licence to blog.

– Bloggers should never be required to register with the government or other

official bodies.

– Accreditation schemes must meet international freedom of expression standards and should ensure that:

– all applicants, including bloggers, who meet the minimum requirements defined in the law should be automatically issued with a ‘press’ facilitation card;

– press cards should only be required to get access to events or premises where there is a clear need to limit attendance based on limited space or the potential for disruption;

– the conditions for obtaining a press card should be based on the overall public interest and not on considerations such as affiliation with a professional association or degree in journalism.

– Legal commentators, including bloggers, should be allowed to use social media from court rooms if the hearings are open to the public.

– To the extent that they are engaged in journalistic activity, bloggers should be able to rely on the right to protect their sources.

– Any request to disclose sources should be strictly limited to the most serious cases. It should be approved only by an independent judge in a fair and public hearing with a possibility of an appeal.

– State authorities must guarantee the safety of bloggers using a variety of measures, including the prohibition of crimes against freedom of expression in their domestic laws.

– States must take reasonable steps to protect bloggers and other individuals actively engaged in online communities when they know or ought to know of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified blogger as a result of the criminal acts of a third party;

– State authorities must carry out independent, speedy and effective investigations into threats or violent attacks against bloggers or other individuals engaged in journalistic activity online.

– The laws governing the liability of bloggers, including defamation law, incitement and other speech-related offences, must comply with international freedom of expression standards.

– As a general rule, bloggers should not be held liable for comments made by third parties on their blogs in circumstances where they have not intervened or modified those comments.

– For certain types of content, for example content that is defamatory or infringes copyright, consideration should be given to adopting ‘notice-and-notice’ approaches whereby bloggers would be required to pass the complaint to the original maker of the statement at issue, without removing the material upon notice.

– The term ‘duties and responsibilities’ in Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the European Convention must be interpreted flexibly to take into account the particular situation of the blogger in question.

– Bloggers should not be forced to abide by the ethical codes or codes of conduct developed by traditional media and should not be coerced or given an incentive to join self-regulatory bodies for traditional media.

– Bloggers may decide to follow the ethical standards of traditional media of their own accord. They can also develop their own code of practice either for their own blogs or for associations they voluntarily join. Alternative dispute resolution systems should also be encouraged.

– When bloggers produce a piece for a traditional newspaper, they should be subject to the newspaper’s editorial control, and abide by the ethical standards of journalists.

Why have The Economist and The New York Times gone silent on ♯Leveson — since 2012? Why is a media columnist writing about manholes, instead?

photograph in honour of the Chinese Year of the Snake: www.sheffieldkungfu.com

photograph in honour of the Chinese Year of the Snake: http://www.sheffieldkungfu.com

Abdication of responsibility is a serious charge.

Even as we type, we are close to fainting from disbelief that The Economist and The New York Times deem the deliberations about press reform in a leading democracy – negotiations in which a prime minister is directly engaged – unworthy of either reportage or commentary. Neither of these leaders in print journalism has run a single piece about the Leveson Inquiry since they recorded the publication of its report.  Unless Google is mistaken, the scintillating newspaper in St. James’s last pronounced on the subject on 8 December; the grey lady, proud of treating the world as its oyster on other subjects, on 5 December

For reasons explained here in two earlier posts – passing on advice from the Chinese sage Lao Tse, and pointing to the pointlessness of making new rules for a dying institution – post-Gutenberg sees press regulation as wasted effort. But over 75 per cent of the British public does seem to want the recommendations of the Leveson report put into practice. Surely this, and the haggling over Leveson’s conclusions by the British government, politicians and media, merit analysis and debate?

Skilled and eminent doctors have to treat and be treated by other doctors, when they fall ill. Judges are not above the law; lawyers must be prosecuted and defended by other lawyers.  The equivalent, for the press, of ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ has to be ‘Journalist, your work is not above dissection and condemnation by colleagues, without fear or favour.’

We once admired the NYT’s media columnist David Carr for his apparent fearlessness and perspective (see ‘Why not occupy newsrooms?’ 23 October 2011). For over a year, most of his columns have left us wondering just who tied and gagged him. Yet none of his timid recent work has been as alarming as his bizarre focus yesterday on the lengths to which an energetic Midwestern newspaper columnist went to trace the hands that took a photograph of an exploding manhole cover in Omaha. That’s right — not a column about, say, media coverage of  the responsibility for the explosion; just a mildly entertaining ramble about the origin of the image. There have been reports over the years of infinitely more ingenious sleuthing that has, for instance, united the finder of a camera lost in one country with an owner thousands of miles away in another – by altruistic amateur detective work by strangers that entailed uploading pictures from the device to the net and posting requests for help on social media.

As for Carr’s subject, surely it was the photographer with the fast reflexes of a citizen-journalist who deserved his praise, and not ‘[gums]hoe leather’ that, according to this NYT columnist, ‘never looked or smelled so good.’  The reader is left baffled by his conclusion: ‘And it’s a useful reminder that even though daily newspapers are a threatened species, they continue to have value in the informational narrative.’ Phew.

More to the point, what is Carr doing, writing about manholes but not ♯Leveson – a subject of keen interest to the planet, judging by the attention the Inquiry has been getting on every continent? (as search engine analysis of traffic brought to this blog, for one, confirms). Was his upgrading of an amusing dinner table anecdote to the focus of a whole media column actually an encoded scream for help – a demonstration of the humble scraps that a good reporter like him is obliged to offer his readers because barred by someone (precisely who?) from doing his job?

If the NYT did not anticipate reactions exactly like ours to its media columnist’s disappearance down a manhole – façon de parler — why is the column closed to comments? (or certainly was, when we last checked a few hours ago?)

But as for the infinitely more critical cause for anxiety, what vital information is that newspaper, like The Economist, failing to give audiences?

Go to the website of the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) – run by lawyers – and look up:

Hacked Off responds to the draft Royal Charter: “a surrender to press pressure”’, 12 February 2013

… and …

Leveson: It is impossible to overstate the Daily Mail’s fear of proper press regulation’,  17 February 2013

You will be afraid, very afraid, when you read what highly regarded publications do not want you to see — and of what there would be no record of at all, without blogs like INFORRM’s.

… Only psychologists, Chinese mystics and lovers of poetry will want to know that as post-Gutenberg awoke last Sunday, the exquisite final lines of a D. H. Lawrence poem came floating to mind, out of the blue, on an unexpected wave of the sort of happiness with which we witness beauty:

And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

They belong to ‘Snake,’ poetry at its greatest, for more reasons than we have time to suggest. As we puzzled over the mysterious reminder of them, fingers tapping into a search engine box, we found that the poem had been the subject of a lovely meditation by Jacques Derrida.

The ‘I’ in the poem is overwhelmed by admiration for the way the reptile looks and moves, but, obeying ‘the voices of my accursed human education,’ throws a stone at it – and

… suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.

[…]

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

[…]

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life …

… About which Derrida proposes, with Gallic convolution, that

‘It is indeed on the side of chance … and toward the incalculability of another thought of life, of what is living in life, that I would like to venture under the old and yet still completely new and perhaps unthought name democracy.’ [his emphasis]

The Chinese Year of the Snake began either on the 4th or 10th of this month, depending on which authority you consult. Did the dream-like entrance of the ‘Snake’ lines have more to do with the private or public sphere? Was it something like a parental warning not to descend to the pettiness of a particular someone whose physical bulk is in direct, inverse proportion to a tendency to small-mindedness and jealousy? In the wider realm, a snake might easily be symbolic of all the forms of competition from citizen-journalists and bloggers so hated and feared by the old press establishment – unwelcome power-sharing.

Yes, democracy.

And that is as far as we will get with de-mystification – for the present.