You may have noticed I’m not among the PC Pro contributors who run a blog on the magazine’s website, and you may (or may not) wonder why that is. I was offered a blog, but churlishly turned it down, largely because this column completely satisfies my urge to run off at the mouth each month, and finding 900 words to fill it is about all I’m up to nowadays. Does this mean I’m a luddite, an anti-democrat, a grouch, or an elitist? Very possibly a touch of all four.
That doesn’t mean I hate blogs and bloggers, nor would I wish to see blogging disappear. It’s more that I’m temperamentally unsuited to being a blogger, because I no longer care to argue as a blood-sport. In my youth, I was a fiery demagogue and acid-spitting ironist who feared a quarrel with no-one, but the charm of that stance has steadily worn off. It’s not, I hope, that I’ve turned into a preacher purely interested in peddling my own views, but I only like to argue with people who share sufficient background to make discussion productive. In my experience, that’s not what you get in most blogs and forums, where discussion invariably gets hijacked by trolls and flamers, and turns into the verbal equivalent of a bar-room brawl in a John Wayne movie.
Had I not already reached this conclusion, reading the Guardian Online’s “Comment is Free” section over the past couple of years would have kicked it into me pretty quickly. The constant spectacle of thoughtful, well-researched articles by the likes of Tim Garton Ash and Polly Toynbee having a long tail of drivel and personal abuse appended to them, like those yucky strings of poo sometimes seen dangling from goldfish, is so demeaning that I wonder anyone continues to write for the paper (masochism, saintly detachment, to pay the mortgage?). Not all blogs are like this, of course, and many news blogs, particularly in the US, have become serious information sources.
The basic problem is one of unequal distribution – of knowledge, information and writing ability. This unequal distribution has been with us for centuries, and is partly inherent in the human condition.
Parents know more about the world than little children and have to transfer some of that knowledge. Some people devote huge parts of their life to learning one special skill; a musical instrument, for example; or are born better equipped for, say, the high jump. They can teach these skills to other people. Significantly, in sport nobody ever gripes about elitism: if Lewis Hamilton really is a better driver than everyone else, people want him to flaunt it and to win. Only in the sphere of writing has the internet induced this faux-egalitarian mass hallucination that everyone is a writer, and that what they all have to say is equally interesting, relevant and true. You might say the net is doing the same thing to video, but three-minute YouTube clips are just savoury snacks that no-one really prefers to Hollywood blockbusters. Certainly not in the same way they’ll accept an ill-informed blog rant above the words of an internationally respected commentator.
Writing skill is as unevenly distributed as any other and can be taught like any other. The vast majority of blogs are private affairs, expressions of their authors’ opinions and feelings – like diaries but with the advantage of sharing with other people. They can indeed be a good way to learn to write, have your efforts appraised and criticised, even perhaps to go on to become a professional. What most bloggers don’t do, however, is spend time or money researching or validating their contents, and that’s where the sinister part comes in. Publishers, being straightforward capitalists, have a duty to maximise their profits, and one way to do this is to pay writers less or pay fewer writers. To them, the blogosphere is starting to look like a huge open-cast mine of free copy, and the fact that it’s neither researched nor necessarily true is beside the point: that just means they can fire the research department too.