This Is Not America

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Much of the discussion about the impact of political blogging is driven by boosterism and clichés.

In the plenary session of last week’s Australian Blogging Conference, ‘blogging evangelist’ Duncan Riley, argued that Australian bloggers had to promote themselves and the blogosphere more actively and ardently in order to reach the audience we deserve.

This sort of agenda is highly coloured by the inevitable, but misleading, comparisons with the American blogosphere.

As part of my own preparation for the conference, I read Margaret Simons’s discussion of blogging in her new book The Content Makers: Understanding the media in Australia. Simons’s chapter reminded me of some points I made at an ABC staff conference on new media in Melbourne about this time last year. One of the questions panelists were posed was ‘are we there yet?’ and my answer at the time was ‘no, but we’re getting there.’

Again, the context was very much the question of whether the influence and reach of political blogging in the United States would be replicated in Australia. I was skeptical at the time as to whether the comparison was the most appropriate one, and my argument in Uses of Blogs that the differences between the two nations’ political cultures are so stark that we might do better to examine the role of the blogosphere in other Westminster democracies such as Canada and New Zealand is one I’d make even more strongly today. It’s interesting to note that this has been picked up on in a recent academic paper  by University of Queensland political scientists Ian Ward and James Cahill.

My take is now that we’re never going to get ‘there,’ if ‘there’ is taken to mean a status and role equivalent to that of the US blogosphere.

There are a number of reasons for this aside from those related to political culture and environment, which I’ll go on and discuss, but I also think it’s important to emphasise that blogging is better seen as having no fixed destination. The way it’s evolving, as Phil Gomes argued on Larvatus Prodeo recently, is towards being more a conversation than a platform, with its own niche and its own value.

So why aren’t we ‘there?’

In contrast to Riley, I think it’s probably a good thing that we don’t have the sort of partisan high profile blogs like the Daily Kos that monopolise the American A-list. While that style of link heavy, content short, partisan blog has its value in American politics, the expectations of a ‘Macaca’ moment or of the eruption of netroots in Australia are both unrealistic and probably undesirable. As the Parties move heavily into the Politics 2.0 space, we see the same sort of disciplined colonisation of the conversation which has always characterised the media efforts of Australian political Parties. Adding partisan inside the beltway politics to this has no value.

Similarly, to a large degree, the oxygen for independent Australian political blogging has been squeezed out. If the 2007 election is a test for the blogosphere, it’s one where we’ve failed before we even enter the exam room.

That’s because the willingness in a relatively disengaged political culture like ours to engage in political discussion is always going to be a very small minority interest, and it’s one that has been colonised by the mainstream media. Their response to that other cliché of blogging ‘journos v. bloggers’ has been to pre-empt the space by a combination of cherry-picking bloggers such as Tim Dunlop to write on their platforms and the enabling of comments facilities on what are largely just recycled op/eds (with some exceptions such as Matt Price and Andrew Bolt).

Another cliché is to suggest that blogs are parasitic on the ‘MSM.’ While there’s some truth in that, the relationship is actually more complex, and as I’ve argued previously, there can in fact be some synergies from co-operation and a symbiotic rather than an adversarial relationship. But political blogs’ chances of reaching a larger audience than we were able to build through our own efforts rely on media notice.

In the lead-up to last year’s midterm election,  the US media proclaimed that if the 2004 Presidential election was the year of the blogosphere, the 2006 campaign had seen the technology move on (to YouTube, largely).

This, I’d suggest, was actually a depoliticising narrative designed to disable the effectiveness of the complex arguments that can be made on political blogs in favour of soundbite online media which could be more easily contained by candidate and party campaigns. Most of the electoral activity in Politics 2.0 in Australia has been of this nature, and the Australian media had the benefit of observing the American moves which enabled them to defang the blogosphere in advance of the 2007 election year.

Although there’s a lot of significance in the degree to which the ‘blogs’ that News Ltd (and particularly The Australian) host attract large numbers of comments and (presumably) a large number of unique visits, what is being practiced in that space is really not blogging. Rather, it has co-opted and channelled much of the audience for online political discussion that may otherwise have gone to independent bloggers and reinscribed it within a traditional media frame.

That’s not to say that the balance sheet is all negative. Obviously, the Government Gazette v. the Blogosphere wars demonstrate that the psephological blogs have had an impact in disrupting the hermetic circle that encloses political commentary in Canberra. There’s value, I think, in the barbarians storming the gate, and the exposure of The Australian‘s motives in attempting to influence and control and circumscribe political debate through its ‘ownership’ of polls and their interpretation.

This phenomenon illustrates some of the classic virtues of blogs their power to aggregate distributed knowledge and to challenge accepted ‘media narratives.’ But it’s also significant that the point of most influence of the political blogosphere is one of the points at which the quality of the Australian media debate is so poor the continual reduction of political reporting to the horse race aspects of electioneering, and the obsession with over-interpreting polls. Blogs are playing a very useful role in knocking this narrative off centre, and
aggregating expert but outsider analyses, but we’re still talking obsessively about polls and the horse race.

I’d be much more excited if we could point to significant coverage of policy issues that go under-analysed or unreported, and over the moon if blogs were influencing the policy debate or raising its salience.

Blogs are capable of aggregating distributed knowledge, providing alternate sources of opinion and views, and of interfacing with and influencing the media in various ways (some more subtle than others), but I don’t think that bloggers should get stuck in the mindset of ‘I don’t like the national media, I want to be the national media!’

We’re often at our best when responding quickly with informed comment to breaking news stories and in taking advantage of the almost hourly media cycle that is the reality of an online mediascape. But, in terms of making a distinctive and original contribution, I think there are two avenues we should be travelling along.

The first is the ‘citizen journalism’ road. Some of the best political blogging in the US concentrates on State and local politics, rushing to fill a vacuum where many news outlets have given up on the municipal and State house beats. If you think back to Brisbane 20 years ago, when we had three daily newspapers and the state based 7:30 Report, and contrast it with the situation now where there’s effectively no State Parliamentary press gallery and no good coverage of much local politics at all, you can get a sense of the sort of gap that could be filled, and filled well. While I don’t think the scope exists for the ‘professionalisation’ of blogging that has taken hold in the US (though there is, and has been, the scope for new writers to emerge from the blogosphere), it’s possible that a business model could be generated to make this sort of coverage on a full time basis feasible.

This begs the question of whether there is such a model for national political blogs, and whether if there were, it would be a good thing.

Simons, who examines various business models for new media (and the media generally in the new mediascape) characterises the blogosphere as part of the ‘gift economy.’ She recounts having interviewed Nicholas Gruen of Club Troppo and asking him what ‘business model’ supported his blogging. Gruen’s response was to burst out laughing.

Gruen gives freely of his time and his knowledge base and in return it enriches his life and makes it more meaningful. It’s that sort of voluntarism mixed with a sense of civic obligation and responsibility which I think gives the independent Australian political blogosphere the richness we can be proud of.

We probably could ‘monetise’ our blogs to a limited degree, but although I don’t think that ‘cash for comment’ would become an issue, we’d inevitably be trawling and writing for hits. ‘Paris Hilton no underpants’ is probably a more popular search term than ‘Kevin Rudd health policy’ as Fairfax Digital knows as it goes about happily trashing the reputation of its brand. Political bloggers might not be writing about Paris every day, but writing for income would skew the topics chosen and even the style of the writing.

There’s nothing wrong with narrowcasting, and attempting to emulate the broadcasting model of chasing the largest possible audience has its dangers, not least in downplaying the community aspect of blogging in favour of talking at and down to an ‘audience.’ While a balance needs to be maintained between a time commitment and the need to earn a living, at the moment I think the argument comes down on the side of the gift economy model.

It’s the art of public and political conversation that I think creates most value for Australian political blogs, and it’s a form of conversation that has the potential to migrate beyond the blogging platform itself. To the degree that this civic art is cultivated, I believe that’s an unalloyed good that political blogs have provided, if not one that is easily captured by most of the clichés and the mirrored narratives of boosterism and denigration.

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