Bloggin' about bloggin'

We’ve been having some interesting background discussion in the Society about things blog-wise. (Why is it the most interesting discussions are on e-mail?) There are a lot of issues to consider about the appropriate role for blogs in the ACS and the risks involved in supporting internal (e.g., FISpace) and external blogs. Well, at least we’re probing the matter…with vigor.

Coincidentally, a book entitled We the Media came to my attention a couple of weeks ago. It was written by Dan Gillmor, a San Jose Mercury News technology writer, and it goes right at the subject of blogs, other web communication tools and their impact on our notions of journalism. A lot about the book is indicated by the title. Basically, the theme is: a paradigmatic change is occurring as the media environment evolves from one with the few channels dominated by big networks, corporations, the FCC, and other big players to one with finer-grained, decentralized digital media. It has almost limitless channels of communication accessible to nearly everyone. Gillmor suggests a shift is on from media as “them” to media as “us.”

The Internet, for the first time, gives us many-to-many and few-to-few communications. This has vast implications for the former audience and for the producers of news because the differences between the two are becoming harder to distinguish.

At their heart, the technologies of tomorrow’s news are fueling something emergent—a conversation in which the grassroots are absolutely essential.

The book was published in July 2004, but it became a little dated by the furious contest in September between CBS News and its icon, Dan Rather (old paradigm) and the legion of bloggers (new paradigm) that challenged their story about the president’s National Guard Service. To my mind the literary parallel for the incident comes from Jonathan Swift: the pooled, networked information of Lilliputian bloggers tied down the giant, Gulliver.

Gillmor quotes New :York U journalism professor Jay Rosen’s characteristics of grass-roots journalism:

1. The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most (not all) of today’s journalism comes out of the market economy.

2. Journalism had become the domain of professionals, and amateurs were sometimes welcomed into it—as with the op-ed page. Whereas the weblog is the domain of amateurs and professionals are the ones being welcomed to it.

3. In journalism since the mid-nineteenth century, barriers to entry have been high. With the weblog, barriers to entry are low: a computer, a Net connection, and a software program like Blogger or Movable Type gets you there.

A lot of We the Media is about changes to what I’d call Big “J”-journalism and Big“N”-news and the impact of a whole armamentarium of new digital technologies on them. A point that I think Gilmor doesn’t address sufficiently is little “j”-journal-ism and “n”-news. The big-time political-pundit bloggers have gotten a lot of attention recently. But the thousands of people who are simply telling their life-stories day-to-day still don’t get noticed, not even by Gillmor. To me the vast accumulation of “news” about people’s lives and its availability to us all is significant.

However, Gilmor does make one statement that is, for my money, the essence of blogging:

What the best individual blogs tend to have in common is voice—they are clearly written by human beings with genuine human passion.

Ah, the most important thing said.

Under “What is FISpace?” there is a disclaimer that says: “The statements in FI Space are the responsibility and the work of the individual authors. They reflect their individual opinions and their interpretation of information. They do not represent the policies or positions of the American Cancer Society or of the FI Space group as a whole.

I’m going to move that statement to the front page. The significance of this blog is the voices of the people who post to it. It takes the Society off the hook, I hope, for what gets put here. I think it’s also the power of the channel: people telling the truth as they see it about the future of the Society and its mission. I take responsibility for what I say. I say it with sincerity and conviction. You may not agree with me, but you gotta know I’m not just peddling contrived b.s.

I think the reason blogging has taken off is that people are looking for statements that are sincere and honest. We have had a surfeit of “messaging,” spinning, “company spokespersons,” and other manipulative communications. Others may agree or disagree with a personal sentiment, but I think personal truthfulness and the courage it sometimes takes to put it out there is refreshing. Moreover, I think it has impact because it resonates with others.

Evidently there was a situation recently where someone was very upset with a Society event and wrote about it on their personal blog. The damning comments were picked up by a major news channel and almost broadcast nationwide. That obviously was a big concern. In contrastg, about a year and a half ago I ran across the blog of someone who had been involved with the Society. She was ecstatic about the experience and said so in a rich way. I forwarded a the link to some people in ACS and said, “There’s no amount of money that can buy the PR-value of these remarks.”

To me the challenge to the Society of “we the media” is to bring the genuine devotion to the Society’s work that thousands of volunteers and staff feel into the stream of small “n”-news. To encourage them to journal their experiences from the heart is, in my opinion, a powerful, powerful thing.

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