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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Blogs means equal voices

Christopher in Hawaii left a comment on my posting "Dear blog reader", and Scott left a reply to a comment I made on Bruno Giussani's blog posting about Thomas Friedman. Reading the two comments on the same day gave me pause, and here is why.

Both reacted to the fact that I have, in the past, worked for Time Magazine and other major publications. Christopher seemed a bit awestruck since he thought I was just another soul out there blogging and now he sees me as a professional writer. Scott was less impressed and seemed annoyed that I should offer an opinion in a kind of citizens' forum (blogs) when as a professional journalist I presumably have more clout than Joe and Jane Blogger.

I started this post with the question in my head: so where do and should journalists fit into the blogging world? But even as I write it is shifting into: so where do non-journalists fit in? Or maybe more to the point, is there some reason we need to divide bloggers into these two groups?

Blogging started out as the great equalizer. Everyone could have a voice, a say about anything and everything. This is still true and the numbers are probably the best indicator of this. Estimates vary but there could well be 50 million blogs today, worldwide. Some are dormant, but no matter how you count this is still a lot of people having something to say and saying it.

After the great equalizer start, journalists started to notice blogging, especially in the political arena. The last U.S. presidential election in particular caught the attention of the media. Journalists started to blog. We might all have been created equal, but it is a lot easier to get more than your equal share of attention if you have a name and publication that already mean something to the general public. And a curious phenomenon started: blog groupies. If a famous journalist or writer published on a blog I could add a comment, no matter who I was. I could enter the fray and I could also have my seconds or minutes of fame because more people read a Famous Person's blog than Joe and Jane Public's blogs. Some people sending comments really did have something to say, but a few others wanted just to be seen to be saying something. That, in turn, put off others who are embarrassed that people might think they are groupies, or don't deserve to have their voices heard.

I think that is where we are today, and it's a shame for the last group in particular, and for those of us who stand to learn something by listening to them.

It would be nice to think that anyone who writes well and is exploring interesting ideas will have a widely read blog, but the reality of how people find their way to blogs means this will happen only some of the time. Joe and Jane are likely to rest in relative obscurity. People with too-busy lives will try to find time to read their blogs, but might not always manage.

I think that is all right. I also think it is all right that many more people will visit the Famous Person's blog, but on one condition: that the author of the blog and visitors give equal time to the comments. If the Famous Person is a journalist, there is too much of a tendency, on his or her part, but also the part of readers, to assume that this voice has greater value.

That is just plain wrong. Good journallists and writers seek out information and try to put it into a perspective that will spark debate. The debate is crucial for any society where the masses have an impact on, and a say in, what happens in their lives. Call it democracy if you will, but that is a word that has become so distorted recently that I tend to avoid using it. Let's say the debate is about the value of keeping a house clean. Democracy doesn't seem to fit in here, but it's a topic on which many, many women (and some men) wax passionate. We can all learn by discussing it (I might try this one next month, when I hope to have time to think about cleaning the house).

Journalists are not smarter than other people. If they are better informed, and sometimes they are, but not always, it is because this is their job - but with the goal of informing others. They are moderators and enablers, not keynote speakers, to borrow business conference lingo. Even the most famous ones, who sometimes forget this.

I do not want people to be impressed or put off by my journalism background because if they are, they will stop writing and contributing to the discussions that blogs generate, mine and others. I fear that they will reach a point where they feel their voices do not have equal value. I'm here precisely because I want to hear their voices, I want to keep things equal, as much as possible.

When I was little I really hated kids who shouted louder and got more attention because of it. I still do, and the blogosphere has a few shouters. Most of the time, they have had or still have a job that gives them an ego that frankly is rarely deserved. One of the greatest dangers of having a job or position of power is that you easily develop the illusion that people love you or admire you for yourself and your smart ideas. You start to believe your opinions matter because of the person you are.

And if the Famous Person no longer had the clout and the power that go with a particular job? Sometimes it turns out that the former Famous Person did indeed have smart ideas and interesting opinions, and we keep listening. Sometimes not.

I had a usefully humbling experience a few years ago. It also reminded me about one of the dangers of my profession, flattery. I interviewed people at Fiat in Italy for Time. I was wined and dined and given the VIP treatment. I learned a lot about Fiat and my hosts learned a lot about me, including the fact that I love Italian food. Time had a policy that we could only accept gifts of food and drink, or things we couldn't carry away, so I was sent home in a chauffered car to save me 30 minutes over the train time, across Italy and Switzerland. The chauffeur had instructions to stop off and buy a magnificent basket of wine and cheeses and salami and fress vegetables at a market outside Turin.

Two years later I was asked by another publication, not a household name, to write about Fiat. The same PR person who had made me feel like royalty didn't remember my name. The publication was one he couldn't be bothered about. He wasn't rude, but he came very close. I was given a 15-minute phone interview with one of his underlings.

So, Christopher, not only am I happy to have your comments here, and to visit your blog, but I don't know everything, especially not about blogs, and your kind advice and suggestions are well received! And Scott, although I doubt you'll see this, I appreciate being reminded by you that if I throw out the name of a big publication right next to my own name I should never assume people will know I have done my homework.

An opinion without evidence to back it is not acceptable from any of us. We are equally free, all of us, to make that mistake, and to correct it.


Blogger Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

There was a lot of meat to that post and when a mind prone to tangents gets through reading it I may have not circled back around to the answer for “What role or status should journalists be accorded in the blogosphere.” This medium is so complex and changing so fast. Each blog or forum has different posting guidelines and some do not even take comments and interact via e-mail. The personalities of people who participate are just as complex. In my short time here I have seen and learned so much. I have watched food fights in gardening forums; read the comments of trolls (new concept) in many political blogs; watched new blogs form from dissent among established groups; seen like minded people enjoy each others company and support and broadened my own sources of information.

Where do journalists fit in? In my opinion, any where they want. A more definitive answer may need to come from some PhD dissertation.

Awestruck, I guess I have to plead guilty. I have been consistently impressed with the number of people of substance, not meaning famous or high profile, just ordinary people that I have been allowed to interact with on the internet. It is a bit like the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair, “If you could have dinner with anyone you wanted, who would it be?” I may not get to pick that person initially, but the dinner conversations have been stimulating.

I have been equally awestruck by some of the pathologies acted out on the internet and long time participants who calmly advise that it comes with the territory and it is best to just pass on by.

In your case Ellen I think my culture tells me you would not have much interest in my little stories because you are a professional writer. That however is a disservice to you because it makes you just your job and my judgment of those in your job and not a person. Because I harbor in the back of my mind that writing may be a part of this next phase of my life, having someone with your background leave a nice comment tells me that there may actually be something there for me to continue to explore.

An invitation to share what we know, explore things of interest and learn what we don’t in a place of shared humanity and equal voices is an offer worth taking. That offer does however come from you as the proprietor of your blog. When I click “next blog” it could be a whole new world.

And that is me trying to be brief with all the thoughts generated by this post.

P.S. If you are going to start a topic on keeping the house clean don't wait a month. I have company coming the 3rd of May and again May 28th. I have been wondering if there is such a thing as an emergency cleaning service.

9:41 AM  

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