The democratisation of news and opinion is manifested in the ubiquitous blog
Blogging and bloggers are fast becoming a significant aspect of the digital communications realm, burrowing into issues the mainstream media sidesteps and providing a more subjective and opinionated alternative to the conventional news story. The word blog derives its original meaning from the term ‘web log’ or online diary, maintaining an opinionated and informal style and structure. With this in mind is blogging to be classed as a self-indulgent opportunity for internal navel gazing or rather a demonstration of the power of the online communal ‘we’ gaining a voice?
In the academic sphere of higher education and research, blogs can serve as an integral and innovative way for academics to communicate remotely through online spaces, across different time zones, areas of speciality and institutions. The London School of Economics hosts an exhaustive range of blogs which are managed by staff at the LSE and cover a wide variety of themes and disciplines. These include the British Politics and Policy blog, a blog on the Leveson Inquiry, a blog by current LSE Director Craig Calhoun as well as a students@lse blog. Wider relevant issues are also addressed by a sustainability@lse blog covering environmental topics as well as the newly added blog on the Euro crisis in the press, to provide a forum for deliberation on the current European economic climate. The focus here is first and foremost knowledge enhancement. Contributions are drawn from a wide range of academics, students and industry experts in the blogging spirit of collaboration.
Also in keeping with the spirit of knowledge provision, are live news blogs. Research by Neil Thurman from City University in London has shown that ‘live blogs receive more visitors for longer periods of time than conventional articles on the same subject’. However, Thurman notes usability challenges as 28% of people found blogs often hard to understand due to the lack of a conventional narrative structure. Multiple authors and the incorporation of a wide range of different types of sources such as tweets can complicate live blog feeds of breaking news stories and disrupt the clarity of what is being communicated. Yet on a positive note, breaking news and unfolding events stories were found to be the most popular overall, with the immediacy of live blog feeds drawing greater interest towards hard news and current affairs.
The Guardian recently detailed the 50 most powerful blogs, with celebrity indulgence sharing the limelight with the politically motivated as the blogs of both notorious gossip writer Perez Hilton and the online news blog Huffington Post appearing in the top 20. Top blogs such as Boing Boing successfully combine a tongue in cheek entertainment format with a liberal political agenda. Boing Boing is one of the most world widely followed blogs. It chronicles cases where despotic regimes have silenced bloggers alongside lighter items such as comic videos and cartoons.
The personal also frequently translates into the popular in the blogging world as Dooce, the blog of American woman Heather Armstrong set up in 2001, sprang into public consciousness in the face of her employment termination for writing posts about her job. Where there is fierce debate there is media attention as the power of the avalanche of followers Heather received means she now supports her family using the advertising revenue generated by the blog. Topics on the blog are primarily personal and include work, family life, postnatal depression, motherhood and puppies. Can this be classified as providing a discursive platform for the individual or rather an opportunity for the public to engage in self-indulgent monologues?
The ability of a personal blog built on personality to transform into a strong political movement is evident in the success of Italian comedian Beppe Grillo in entering the political arena in Italy. Grillo’s blog posts focus on the problems of corruption prevalent in Italian politics and culminated in the launch of the political Five Star Movement (M5S) in 2009. Despite casting a scrutinous light on the corruption practices of Italian politics, this is a populist movement unified by what it is against rather than standing for and hence generally regressive. M5S also promotes completely un-pragmatic policies such as a 20 hour working week, which are comedic in nature but demonstrate the power of a large following in the online blogging community.
This power is not always wielded for positive purposes and can breed intolerance and ignorance as currently demonstrated by the case of the US bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who co-founded the anti-Muslim group ‘Stop the Islamisation of America’. Both were banned from entering the UK on the grounds that their presence ‘is not conductive to the public good’ as stated by a UK Government spokesman. This preventative measure was taken to avoid amplification of the voices of two bloggers whose purpose is to inflame religious tensions and create societal disunity.
Whether a tool of personal observational luxuriating, a method of raising political awareness or a means by which to educate, inform and entertain the blogging community is here to stay. It has also been confirmed that new press laws to be introduced in the UK in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry will exclude low profile and not for profit bloggers. In keeping with libertarian notions of free speech this will ensure those who wish to naval gaze and those who wish to educate are able to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Emma Rees is studying a Masters in Politics & Communications at the LSE