The Blogging Phenomenon
Steven Levy at Newsweek asks why blogging is dominated by white males, and what the implications of this configuration are if blogging replaces traditional media. He quotes presenters at a recent Harvard conference who worried that the newsrooms of the major print media have only recently begun to be diversified with regard to gender and race, and that the white male bloggers could crowd out the voices of these professional journalists.
Jeff Jarvis, the Republican in Democrat Clothing, replies that there is nothing wrong with being a white male.
Of course not. But white male Americans, at least, disproportionately voted for Bush, supported the Iraq war, favor racial profiling, favor tax cuts for the wealthy, favor capital punishment, oppose gay marriage, etc. Of course they are diverse, too, but their statistical center of gravity skews right in American terms, which means Pretty Far Right in the terms of the rest of the world. If they dominate a medium of news and information, it won’t give a balanced view of the world.
In his typical ad hominem fashion, Jarvis attacks Levy for being a white male. But Levy’s point is precisely that the Newsweek newsroom doesn’t just consist of people like him, whereas the blogs with the largest number of hits in the world consist of bloggers an awful lot like Jarvis.
Jarvis then makes the breathtaking observation that anyone can blog. But that isn’t the point either. Levy isn’t saying anyone is prevented from blogging. He is saying that we may find that the top five hundred blogs with regard to hits have a particular racial and gender configuration, which may not be healthy for the medium.
Jarvis argues that the bottom 7,999,999 blogs in hits get much more circulation than the top 100 blogs. This statement is true but contains a genuine fallacy of reasoning. Most blogs get only a few hits, and are seen by only a few people, and they are not the same people as see the other small blogs. So to aggregate all these readers is illegitimate. Andrew Sullivan or Jeff Jarvis or Right Wing News, on the other hand, get tens of thousands of hits a day, especially from other opinion leaders, and circulate widely. So that a million other blogs each get 3 hits a day is completely beside the point.
Jarvis then recommends some Middle Eastern bloggers as though he is thereby providing diverse opinions. But let’s stop and think about this. Jarvis doesn’t know anything serious about the Middle East, and is innocent of the languages. So he is recommending English-language blogs from the region or by expatriates, without any real metric for where they fall on their own country’s spectrum. Who knows English in the Middle East? Usually young men from wealthy or at least middle class families. They are disproportionately likely to favor capitalist, unregulated markets, to be secular in their outlook, and to be pro-Western. I.e., the views of many (not all) Western-educated Middle-Easterners are almost the complete opposite of most other Middle Easterners. You have to know something about the Middle East to know something about Middle Eastern bloggers in their own context.
Here is some support for Levy’s argument. Henry Copeland summarizes the recent results of a non-scientific blog advertisements poll. He finds that a fifth of blog readers are themselves bloggers, and that they engage in the activities typical of opinion leaders. The blogosphere is the sphere of the innovators, volunteers, networkers and entrepreneurs. In Henry’s poll, it is 3/4s male, and disproportionately upper middle class.
Jarvis is right that the problem is in what readers choose as daily fair rather than in what is available. If Mr. Jarvis wants some real diversity, he might try the blog of al-Muhajabah, “Veiled 4 Allah: The occasional thoughts of a Muslim woman. Islam, current events, my life, and whatever else interests me.”
Then there is the refreshing Iranians for Peace, with postings by Mana Kia, Sima Shakhsari, and others.
If you want something as unlike Jeff Jarvis as possible, try Genia Stevens’ Sisters Talk.
Or how about the staunchly anti-war pacifist journalist of the Middle East, Helena Cobban of Just World News?
The Iraqi Sunni Arab woman blogger, Riverbend, reflects the views of many in the Baghdad Sunni middle classes, and must gall Jarvis by being almost as popular as he is.
Progressive women include Melanie Mattsoon’s Just a Bump in the Beltway
and Susan Madrak’s Suburban Guerrilla
I’m not trying to be exhaustive, just attempting to make the point. There’s real diversity out there, and really important opinions being generated by it, which we ignore at our peril. Steven Levy is right that there is a danger of it being ignored, because blog readers too often look for mirrors of their own views. The mean-spiritedness of Jarvis toward those with whom he disagrees, and his celebration of often unrepresentative Middle Eastern bloggers, typifies this danger.
By the way, I regularly disagree with many of the sites I just listed, and they often disagree with one another.
The danger is all the greater because Jarvis has used his old TV Guide rollodex to convince the journalists that he speaks for the bloggers in general as the expert on the medium. He has also managed to scare them with his silly assertion that all bloggers are journalists. He should speak for himself. Me, I’m a news consolidator, translator, op-ed writer, and historian. I’m not doing journalism (i.e. news gathering on the scene and ensuring that stories are at least sourced to two or three different persons) 95 percent of the time. Most of what I do could not be accomplished without the efforts of the real journalists in the field, my heroes. And I even worked for a newspaper in Beirut for nearly a year once (mostly as a translator), so I know what real journalism looks like. I also did it with a civil war going on around me, so I know what the personal cost of journalism at the front is. People watching Fox and then bloviating at Little Green Martians or whatever are not doing journalism. Most of the people working in the studio at Fox Cable News are not even doing journalism as opposed to oral opinion columns, though there are real reporters in the field, who no doubt wish they could find some other boss than Rupert Murdoch.
News is becoming more interactive, which is all to the good. I would say that the most important feature of the blogosphere is the enabling of narrow-casting. Ten years ago who would have believed that an obscure professor of Middle East studies at a midwestern university could generate as many as a million page views a month by talking about Iraqi Shiite politics? Ten years ago I couldn’t even have gotten past the gatekeepers and slush piles to get an op-ed piece published. This is certainly some sort of revolution, but it is not a revolution in the production of journalism. It is a revolution in the interpretation, reception, and feedback-looping of journalism.
The phenomenon is not becoming less important. David Sifry reports some results of statistics gathered through Technorati.com, a web page link tracking service. He finds that up to 40,000 web logs are being created each day. Technorati now tracks nearly 8 million blogs, double the number from 5 months ago. The nearly 8 million blogs account for nearly one billion links.
As many bloggers have pointed out, the negative spin that many journalists put on a recent Gallup poll about the impact of blogging is undeserved. In fact, nearly a quarter of respondents said that they were familiar or somewhat familiar with blogs, and only 48 percent said they never read them. Obviously, it is a new medium, and what is remarkable about it is that it requires people to read. Americans are frankly not great readers, on the whole. Some 59 percent of Americans say they get their news from their local television stations. Only 42 percent even claim to have read the newspaper yesterday. But over a quarter now say they get news online. If they are reading, e.g., google.news, there is little in the way of distinction between formal journalistic news and blogs there. A lot of people may be reading blogs and not knowing it. I actually find it quite scarey that a keyword search at google.com turns up Reuters alongside American Patriot News and some bloggers. If I were google, I’d disaggregate those.