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The future, Conan?

Nico Macdonald writes today in the Register of BloggerCon II and "The future of Weblogging," an article that's worth a glance. A couple of quick notes.

I think Macdonald does a nice job of contextualizing weblogging in a longer history of technological development than is typically associated with it. And unlike some who take a critical approach to the phenomenon, he seems to understand its development:

It is one of those developments – like easy Internet access – that one knows is possible but couldn’t quite imagine happening. And then it slowly dawns on you that although you were only aware of small steps being taken, a milestone has been reached, and something significant has been achieved.

The problem with significance, of course, is that, once it happens, the pundits step in and start pronouncing--I don't exempt myself from that, btw. In Macdonald's case, it's to argue that

Irrespective of its provenance, it is certainly a wonderful thing that many more people are able and have chosen to be self-publishers. However, we need to encourage more people to be journalists. Journalism involves actually interviewing people, doing thorough background research on a subject, presenting a rounded and dispassionate overview, and reasoning through substantive arguments.

I've got some ambivalence here, because I think that the definition of journalism he's working with, and the ideals that it reflects, have been abandoned for the most part, at least in this country. I know that there are good, careful writers blogging, who actively and vocally aspire to the "new journalism" that is often the rationalization for the importance of weblogs. More power to 'em. And more power to Macdonald's vision for how weblogs might change the way that the journalistic establishment works--check the last section of the article for more on this.

To be fair to him, Macdonald sees blogging changing journalism at least as much as the other way around. But I'm still struck by the degree to which his argument seems to rest on top-down assumptions. Here are all these crazy people, spilling their innermost secrets, exposing themselves on-line, and enough of them do it that everyone's now taking notice. It's hard not to feel like he's suggesting that it's time for the experts to take over and make something useful out of weblogging.

There is much to celebrate in the development of Weblogging – but the discussion of it is often uncritical and un-ambitious. If Weblogging is the answer, as so many claim it is, what was the question? [...] I am not arguing that all technological developments must answer a known question. Rather that we shouldn’t invent questions where they were never posed. We should avoid the habit of the man with a hammer who “always sees nails”.

"The man with a hammer" is rapidly becoming an unbearable cliché to me, but I agree with what he says here. So why has it become so important to suggest that weblogs are the answer to the question of informing the populace, civic engagement, or indecent self-exposure? The problem that any claim about the "future of blogging" is going to have is that it will inevitably isolate a small portion of the phenomenon, treat it as the whole, and discount a huge number of people who have little interest in practicing journalism (or publishing their most private thoughts, or whatever), be it new or old. That's the nail that articles like this can't seem to stop hammering, the one whereby a distributed, diffuse phenomenon is reduced in scope, packaged up, and translated through a medium that (as Macdonald admits) operates according to an "out-dated model of knowledge development and discussion."


I am not arguing for experts to take over. In my area of journalism (design, technology and business) I find there are relatively few good established journalist, and much of the interesting commentary and analysis is to be found in Weblogs. I would like to see my Weblogging colleagues set their sights higher and be more ambitious, at least occasionally writing substantial pieces rather than solely posting comments on others' writing. Of course, some already do this, most notably, in my area, Clay Shirky and Dan Gillmor. Although high standards in journalism my be declining this is no reason to abandon them.