Thursday, December 30, 2004

We the media

The Financial Times today reviews two books on our favourite subject – after the European Union, this is – blogs. One is by Dan Gillmor, technology correspondent of the San Jose Mercury News, who has been chronicling online innovation for the past decade, and the other by Joe Trippi.

Gillmor's book is called "We the media", a chronicle of "Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people", while Trippi's has the intriguing name: "The revolution will not be televised". He subtitles it: "Democracy, the internet and the overthrow of everything".

I like that last subtitle because I see the "blogosphere" as inherently subversive and see it as a powerful force in bringing down that dream of the European political élites Рthat accursed European Union.

But, as you would expect, it is the Amercian scene on which these books concentrate, with the FT review telling us that, when the history of the 2004 US presidential election is written, it will contain one word absent from accounts of all previous quadrennial contests. That word is "blog".

These two books, says the FT, go some way to enhancing our understanding of the blog phenomenon as it applies to the political arena, and what the likely implications are for the democratic process from the perspectives of candidates, citizens and the media. It continues:

In the "blogosphere", the bloggers' rather grand collective description of the world they inhabit, there are currently between 4m and 5m blogs and, like many online phenomena, that figure has been projected to double over the next 18 months.

The average blog, it is said, is written by a 15-year-old schoolgirl and contains detailed accounts of what she is wearing, what she is listening to and which boys she has a crush on. And certainly many, many ordinary blogs are just that - stultifyingly ordinary.
But according to Dan Gillmor, today's political bloggers are the direct descendants of revolutionary pamphleteers such as Tom Paine: spreading word of dissent, holding those in authority to account and encouraging citizen participation in a newly emerging public sphere.

I like that description as well as it strikes a chord. With the mainstream media "captured", it makes perfect sense that we should turn to the alternative media to make our voices heard.

Gilmor puts it in perspective, writing that "Tomorrow's news reporting and production will be more of a conversation… The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both."

However, according to the Pew Centre for People and the Press, even during the election campaign only about 4 per cent of Americans with online access said they referred to blogs primarily for political information. So long as that stays the case, the mainstream press will inevitably remain the focus of the mass of news consumers.

Yet, says the FT, while intellectual momentum appears to be shifting in the direction of the online world, what also seems likely to happen - and to an extent is happening already among "established" blogs - is that the blogosphere will itself stratify, with the most popular journals taking on characteristics almost similar to so-called "big media".

Joe Trippi, however, has the last word, with his experiences running an internet campaign for Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who used the blogosphere to galvanise and motivate a huge number of grassroots activists and contributors to join his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Anyone with a computer was able to join the discussion," Trippi writes, "and once you joined the discussion, you had effectively joined the campaign, because eventually the discussion was the campaign. The campaign was what the bloggers helped make it."

That is what we hope will happen to the EU referendum campaign and is remains highly encouraging to see the number of eurosceptic sites springing up – as well as their quality. The media and the politicians might not like it but the future is blog-shaped.

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