Friday, April 30, 2010

Bloggers now know how MSM columnists felt a few years ago

It's Friday again, and I've surfaced the same frustration that I did last Friday: That there is so much useful commentary around at the moment, I don't know what I can add that isn't unwitting plagarism. I can extract two observations from this that - you never know - are ones that haven't been made elsewhere:

1. Bloggers like to impress: I try, anyway, with mixed results (you're the judges on this one). I started doing this thing at least in part because I returned to University in my 30s to do an MSc in Politics & Administration, I loved doing it and mourned its passing for seven or eight years before I finally decided to jump on the blogging bandwagon (after a few false starts).

But being impressive is now a great deal harder. The sheer volume of quite-good commentary that's on the market now (thanks to the proliferation of social media tools) means that I'm fairly sure that any insights that I offer will have been made somewhere else, unseen by me.

I like to think I'm honest enough to acknowledge where I read something if I use it myself.

This was less of a problem a few years ago. I started blogging because I was fairly sure that no-one was saying the things that I would say - at least with the same emphasis that I did. Now, I'm fairly sure that they are, but I'm a bit worried about unwittingly parroting someone.

In this election, the sheer volume of amateur psephology around has made it very interesting for an anorak such as myself. This was never the case in the past. The conclusions we can draw from it about democracy are genuinely exciting for me. However, I've reduced my output of everything apart from micro-blogging (Twitter, Facebook, Posterous, Google Buzz & Google reader etc) for a number of reasons:
  1. That plagarism problem, as outlined above. I don't want to be some putz who repeats something that half of my readers have seen already.
  2. The completeness question: I used to be fairly confident that I could check a number of traps around the estate to find the corpses of relevant arguments and counter-arguments before I pressed 'send'.
I used to be fairly confident that I could hit 'Publish' without attracting the wrath of too large a portion of the relatively small in-group of online participants that lurked around the blogosphere in 2005.

The ingroup has expanded enormously. I'm beginning to know how MSM columnists felt when they first got the sharp end of the blogosphere a few years ago. They wrote for an even smaller self-referential circle, consolidating various metropolitan biases.

2. Collaborative filtering isn't there yet: I have a contention that I've tried out a few times without being contradicted. Here it is again:
Take all of your reading of the MSM in recent weeks and months. Think of the articles that gave you some level of satisfaction - for their wit, insight, informativeness and their personal communication - how far they met your specific needs as a reader. Now think about this. On the same day, someone, somewhere, wrote a much better article - one that had all of the information and other qualities that you were looking for - and they wrote it somewhere that's on the open web.
If you crack the problem of how to find it and assemble it in a form that's useful to you, the notion of the MSM as a purveyor of high-quality information could die in short order. Specifically, this is a threat to the broadsheets.

That problem can be cracked by collaborative filtering. I use Google Reader for most of mine, and I can say with some confidence that I spend a great deal more time reading my iPhone than I do reading newsprint - the latter being a backstop for when I'm on the tube without a mobile signal. Mobile RSS is even close to cracking that problem and I'm sure the iPad will remove some of the tactile issues that newsprint diehards have.

But filtering 'worth reading' material has new created a new problem. There is loads of stuff out there that meets my needs (better than MSM, personalised, interesting). How do we de-duplicate and to highlight originality from this torrent of information that is hitting our (er, mine anyway) peripheral vision? The stuff that we dip into, read and recommend to others by sharing?

I'm writing this, at least in part, to help Andrew with his thinking around Poblish, but also as an excuse for why I'm not writing as much as I used to - I'm actually missing doing it, because I don't know what I think until I read what I've written.


Jon Worth said...

Paul, I understand you very much here! I feel in the same situation, and that's precisely the reason why I have posted very little about the general election on my blog - I don't know what to add. Even finding something interesting or different to tweet has not been easy...

Having said that, and by no means to blow my own trumpet, I have managed to carve out a niche in EU politics where I am writing genuinely different things. It might not be so regular, and for a wide audience it's too nerdy, but I'm basically on my own to be posting about the EU from a technical, not hating the existence of the EU position. Surely you need to carve out that same sort of niche in UK political blogging?

Paulie said...

Sure Jon. But I used to just blog. Now you're asking me to identify a niche and blog into it. That's harder - it's not impossible - but it raises the stakes on something that is largely a voluntary activity (though I also buy the 'opensource analysis' business model of blogging that we freelancers apply).

Mil said...

Yes. The niche thing means people visit you. Otherwise, they don't know why you exist - unless your personality in itself is sufficiently interesting to make anything you talk about worth visiting. In which case, your niche is you. Few of us are that interesting - or indeed that competent.

I agree entirely with this:

"[...] I don't know what I think until I read what I've written."

I often don't know what I'm going to say until I reach the end. That shows, of course. But it also means the reason I blog is because I need to write - and it's enough to write for myself. Through writing I discover my own thoughts. It's like the tree which falls unheard in that perennial forest. My thoughts don't exist for me until I write them down.

I agree with you very much in relation to what Andrew's trying to do. I'd very much like to work on Poblish too - but I think what it now needs is substantial investment on two fronts: functionality and marketing. It needs people who know about open source community development philosophies even if the licences it uses are not finally open source; who know about interface development; who know exactly what collaborative blogging needs to attract users and - more importantly - make it popular.

Subsuming oneself to the common good *can* be made attractive - but it won't attract the future Iain Dales of the blogging universe.

We need to sift through motivations and define interest groups before Poblish can progress effectively.