The Examined Life

Where I torture reality till it confesses the truth

Most blogs are terrible

Yes they are. This can be confirmed by casual observation. Peruse the average blog, and you will find that it is filled with unoriginal thoughts, sloppy reasoning, excessive ranting, bad grammar and poor spelling. So the average journalist compares the average newspaper article with the average blog entry, and asks, “Are these guys serious about blogs being the new form of journalism? This crappy stuff will threaten the newspaper industry?”

I have not yet formed an opinion on whether blogs will threaten newspapers, but I am quite certain that looking at the average blog is the wrong way to estimate the quality of the blogosphere. The average blog might be crap, but the best blogs are not. The best bloggers write better, reason better and – this is the most important point – are more intelligent and knowledgeable than the average journalist. I would also say that they are better on all those counts than even the best journalists, but that is debatable.

There ought to be no mystery about why bloggers are more knowledgeable. Journalists often claim that bloggers are amateurs, but then, journalists are professionals only the art of writing, while bloggers are often professionals in the subject they are writing on. I would wager that it is easier for a professional to pick up writing skills than for a professional writer to gain an understanding of a subject well enough to write a 1500 word article about it.

The best bloggers are writing only because the worst bloggers can. The worst blogs come into existence because it is extraordinarily easy to set up a blog. It is free, takes a couple of minutes and keystrokes are free.

But what is point of arguing that the best blogs are excellent? If most blogs are mediocre, won’t their very presence make it difficult to find the few good ones in the crowd ? If they did, then yes, it would be valid to conclude that the blogosphere is a place where mediocre thoughts reign.

But that is not the case. I do not choose blogs to read by picking one up at random. The blogosphere through its technology and culture gives me a way to find good blogs. The technology part consists of the hyperlink, permanent archives and permalinks. The culture part is the bloggers’ bewildering habit of talking about each other, criticising one another and building on one another’s posts. The technology and culture support each other. One would not have been possible without the other. Because good blogs link to each other, even ones they disagree with, I have but to find one decent blog and it tends to open the door to a great number of other good blogs for me.

So if you have free entry and a mechanism for selecting the good entrants, you end up with pretty good quality. Besides, you get greater variety.

Is there an alternative? What if, instead of going through this rigmarole of free entry and linking, we try a more direct way of doing QA on blogs? What if we had a regulatory body that decided on whether a writer was qualified to blog? Better yet, why not have the body vet every post to insure quality?

Because the quality of blogs will plummet.

Why? Because for one thing, entry into the blogosphere will not be free anymore. That would not be a bad thing if it were the bad blogs that got eliminated. But they won’t. It will be the good ones that will shut down. Why is that?

One cynical answer from an Indian would be that because our government is corrupt, bloggers will have to pay bribes to get themselves approved. Naturally, it won’t be worth my while to pay the bribe. The only ones who will do will be those who hope to make money out of blogging. That will be those things like corporate blogs, journalists who want to showcase their work, etc. Nothing wrong with that, but we will lose the passion and dedication of the amateur bloggers – those who do not make a living out of writing, but certainly have expertise in other areas.

That may be the cynical answer, but this is true even if the government weren’t corrupt. Applying for permissions, filling out forms etc. are a chore and act as a deterrent even when there is no bribing involved. But red tape is the least of the problems when it comes to government regulations.

Regulations have a tendency to increase. This happens for four reasons. One is government officials’ own desire to increase their power and intrude more. The second is that once you have regulations, the quality of blogs will become the government’s responsibility. Which means that everytime there is a failure of regulation, the public demands to know how it is possible that the one bad blog snuck through inspite of the regulations. The government’s usual answer to that is to increase regulations. The third is that the more regulations you have, it gets progressively tougher to keep the regulations fair, which means that it is impossible to satisfy everyone. (“Hey you have regulations against hurting religious feelings. What about hurting linguistic feelings? How are Gult jokes allowed?”) The demands for fairness from different groups end up obliging the government to add more regulations in a futile attempt to satisfy them. The fourth reason is that to prevent abuse of discretionary power by lower level officials, regulations start getting more and more detailed. When this happens corruption at the lower levels of the bureaucracy may reduce because the corruption shifts to the regulation-making process (see the USA, for example).

Dealing with overbearing regulations and lobbying with officials requires a different skill from what blogging does. The kind of people who will survive as bloggers will be different from the current lot. Again, I must emphasise this, this has nothing to do with corruption of the sort we are familiar with. In India officials take outright bribes, but lobbying is an inevitable part of any democratic process. If you think that I am splitting hairs, I submit that I’ve made my point.

You will also find that established bloggers will start loving the regulations, because they keep new bloggers out.

Have you been reading and agreeing with me so far? Now try to disagree with me. Read the post again and tell me what it would take for my argument to be wrong. Is it enough to say that most blogs are terrible? No, because that is what I started off with and built on. Does it help to point out that the blogosphere’s mechanism to filter out bad blogs break down sometimes? For example, there will often form cliques which promote one another. It will also happen that well-written rants will gain better publicity than well-reasoned posts. Does pointing out help? Not really, because my argument was that whatever job the blogosphere does, regulation will make it worse. I am not just saying that regulation will be ineffective, mind you. I am saying that it will make things worse. So if you want to prove me wrong, you will need to examine the beast of the regulatory mechanism. It is not enough to say “We need regulation”. You need to get into the details, because the details may make a difference between good regulation and complete disaster.

One more thing. Suppose that you ignored, or never got, my advice and you had gone ahead and regulated bloggers. Suppose you had found that most bloggers were the way I have predicted they’d be above – corrupt ass-lickers. Is it fair to use the state of the blogosphere in such a situation to say: “These are the sort of bloggers we are talking of. If they are so corrupt now, how do you think they will behave if blogging were deregulated completely?”

If you’ve agreed with me completely so far, I want to make the argument I made for blogging for education too – for private schools and educational institutions. Do you still agree?

51 Comments

  1. I dont think bloggers look at blogs as an extension of the mainstream media. It may be an alternative but as of now it is not an extension of journalism I am myself a journalist and I and for that matter other journalists blog because this medium gives them a lot more freedom than their own newspapers. As for the regulations, India has just around 20,000 bloggers (it may be less or more) and it is early days yet to talk about regulations!

  2. hi,
    that previous comment was left by me (http://www.popcornsoda.blogspot.com)

  3. As usual, I did not read this in full. But I am reminded of a comment that David Brooks made
    “While most blogs are very average, some are written very well. These are intelligent observations and opinions. So what it makes us do is that we in the MSM are forced to dig deeper and do more research to keep our work relevant. The strata of journalism that uses only opinion is now taken over by blogs and we in the MSM have been forced to maintain a higher standard”

  4. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and kicks its ass hard!

  5. Hi,

    This is no more than a tangential response to your topic. I just wanted to say I have been visiting your site on and off (more off than on lately, due to work pressure) and that it appeals to me. Interesting content, fine style.

    Just wanted to say hello. Don’t necessarily want this comment posted.

    Keep up the good work!

    hw

  6. Great post, Ravi.

    The issue really is how willing are we (as a society) to accept what Schumpeter called the difficult part of ‘creative destruction’. We won’t have any problem seeing hundreds of blogs close down. There are no costs to create or close down blogs. Same with reading or stop reading some of them. But, that’s not the case with educational institutions. Besides, education is also an emotional issue.

    The fact that there are costs involved (for those who provide education and those who take it) will make us more careful. But still, as in any unregulated capitalist system, dustbins will be filled with the old and failed. It will create losers. And there will always be people – ‘intellectuals’, politicians, and of course, the incumbents – who will point to these gales of destruction and press for more regulations.

    But the question is are we ready to accept that creative destruction leads to progress and better standards of living for all. I think you have done a great job in using the blog (your blog, and Blog) to show how it works.

    (Btw, Unregulated education system need not exclude the disadvantaged. There are better ways – coupon system, for example – to make sure they are not left out, as many have pointed out before)

    Luckily, creative destruction is not new to India. During Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu people gleefully burn the old and welcome the new. The phrase ‘pazhayana kazhidhalum, pudhiyana pugudhalum’ (exit of the old, and entry of new) is supposed to be ancient. There is hope.

  7. After many years of blogging you modestly say” I have not yet formed an opinion on whether blogs will threaten newspapers ” . Though new to blogging, I can readily sense its immense potential . Metcalfe’s Law will ensure that the blog medium, through the multiplier effect of links and networking, will replace mainstream media as the preferred channel. It is gathering momentum and will attain that critical mass soon

  8. Came here through DesiPundit. Some unsolicited observations:

    1. Don’t think journalists sit and compare “are we better or are bloggers (average or good) better” …
    2. The reason: hardly any “quality” (the definition of the word quality is debatable) journalist in India (at least) blog. The number (of quality journalists who blog) wouldn’t even exceed a dozen by any stretch of imagination …
    Even outside India that remains the trend.
    3. Why are average blogs so bad? Because most are not trained writers, and often are at pain to continuously find issues to write on and put up on their blogs … to ensure that traffic flow doesn’t cease. Mass production often adversely affects quality.
    4. I feel you are over-emphasising the importance of blogging.

  9. Blogs started out as a vent for people from various walks of life, in fact in most cases as a substitute for writing “Dear Diary”. For the most part, blogs were just personal opinions about the bloggers life, views on various matters from sundry things like getting ready for work to international politics. As with any other medium of expression, blogging has led us to all the good, bad and average. Unlike mags and newspapers which advertise themselves as sources of news, most blogs are just opinions of an individual. It is not fair that regulations should shut down those blogs simply because they are bad or average…..it is a breach on an individual’s right. As with anything else, you always have a choice..to read or not to read a blog that does not appeal to you. I realise that this opens up other doors, one of which is where bloggers are professional and for profit.

    In any case, everyone gets their own space, irrespective of its quality. As you had pointed out, we can always find our way through to blogs that appeal to us among the millions out there. It brings us to the question when did blogging become just a showcase of talents instead of an average man’s release from his daily humdrum.

  10. True, the best blogs are better than the average piece of journalism – but wouldn’t that always be the case? The best journalism would also – by definition – be better than the average…

  11. Hi,
    I think you are over-emphasiizing the importance of blogs and the significance of their existence. And its like saying that it is the blogosphere as a whole who may challenge the MSM… if it does happen, it will be a few select blogs who will do so.
    This is like grouping international newspapers, local newspapers, journals, college newsletters, school magazines, etc together… all blogs belong to different categories… and all of them have a justifiable reason for existence.

  12. Regulation on blogs? It is like regulation on what you speak. Blogging is personal expression. Some blogs may be a good source of information that can substitute the conventional media like newspapers. But that is not what blogging is all about. It is just a tiny part of blogging.

  13. Nirav and Bonatellis, I haven’t said a single word about the importance of blogs. In fact, I have pointedly refused to say anything about whether blogs will replace journalism. I have said quite a few about their quality, but that is a different thing.

    Vasanth, regulation on what we speak is a reality that we have to contend with. Freedom of speech applies to all speech, including those by newspapers. Restrictions on speech (like libel laws) likewise apply to all speech not just those by newspapers. I support the former and oppose the latter, but there is no point supporting or opposing them based on whether they apply to newspapers or blogs.

  14. The whole idea of blogging is that I am free to express my thoughts. It is my idea to express my feelings rather than improve my journalistic abilities. Why should there be some competition? Why should a blogger be judged ont he way he is writing?

    This is a medium of expression of all people who love to preach and have no audience to preach

  15. I doubt if i would like to call any blog terrible. blogs by in large would resemble society, some contribute more , some less & some lurk, Some people are more interested & some less. Some have more knowledge & opinions & some less, But all blogs do have their worth & may at times contibute with specific information.
    I would suggest you check out THE POWER AND POLITICS OF BLOGS by Daniel W. Drezner.
    He has outlined the structure of the blogosphere as a network of nodes , some are more used & some less but the lesser known nodes also contribute.
    Goofy I believe has a point.

  16. Well Ravi,good post. No doubt.But we need to understand the basics.Journalists (no, not those who are working with any media exactly!) are not who only write good. they write in where they are good.Journalist do not necessarily need a degree, though it is required for a job as journalist.journalists are born to speak for those who can not speak for themselves.bloggers are born who are not journalist but want to write something.they want to express something and i do believe all bloggers have full writes to express themselves.No bad no good.Who the hell are we to decide the fate of a blogger and and give him a cap–bad or good.Does good writing about real issues is the only objective the blogosphere has? we are human beings because we have the ability to choose between good and bad, not necesarrily eliminate bad.the atmosphere is for all, for honey and for shit.So is the blogosphere is for all, for u-a good blogger, and for me-a bad blogger.

  17. I seemed to have spawned more yum yums…..:)

  18. About having a regulation for blogs, that is practically impossible…….. because of the very nature of the web which is not limited to one country and one geographical strata

  19. reminds me of something called the Pro-Am revolution http://www.demos.co.uk/catalogue/proameconomy/

    regards
    Gautam

  20. Agreed. Most blogs are terrible, if you look at the quality of writing. But so are a lot of newspapers. All men/women can be classified as good/bad/pathetic in terms of their writing skills/journalistic ability. But the purpose of a blog is not to showcase your journalisitc skills. If out of the millions of people, some are exceptionally good at writing and expressing their opinions and reasoning, so be it. Let their blogs be used as reference material. My blog is going to be filled with my rants and I dont care a hoot if its of no use to anybody. It is serving a purpose, my purpose. As you have mentioned, its the habbit of bloggers to link other blogs and build on others’ posts that is of use here. It is the speed at which support can be garnered or word can be spread that is of importance here. Other than that, I think the whole discussion about blogs-being-an-alternative-to-msm is pointless.

  21. Great post! I especially liked your analysis of regulation.

  22. Great analysis. Great Post.

  23. Ravi,
    To me, my blog is a place where I can have my bit of fun. It would only be wanna-be journalists who would sit and compare if they are good or if they are better than the MSM. For a casual blogger, it is about fun. If you ask me, i don’t care if my blog is good or bad. I will blog as long as its fun. As for regulation, I don’t mind as long as it is designed to control slander and false info, but not having a restriction on the casual blogger. that’s my 2 cents.

  24. An alternative technology could be devised wherein one can open an account only if he/she has received an invite from a fellow blogger(similar to orkut). This blogger’s name and his link will be displayed on the new blog. Similarly, each blog shall contain the list of invitee blogs. This will make a blogger think twice before inviting someone.

  25. True enough… most blogs are terrible. Perhaps mine is terrible, too.

    I think the horrible blogs are necessary, though… because anyone can have a blog, it means that your average person is free to try and express themselves.

  26. >>>It is not enough to say “We need regulation”. You need to get into the details, because the details may make a difference between good regulation and complete disaster.

    Hence it is not enough to say “We don’t need regulation”. You need to get into the details etc…

  27. Did you read what I wrote? I made that statement after making a long and logical case why the burden of proof should be on those who propose the regulation. If you haven’t read all that, why would I think that you will read any further arguments?

  28. I did read the whole thing, yes. But I thought you meant this by your statement that I cut-and-paste’d in my comment:

    If you look into details, you may come across good regulations. Good regulations in the sense of regulations that should be in place and that one can’t argue against.

    Now, if one agrees that there may be good regulations, then one has to conclude that it would be tough to just say, ‘we don’t need regulations’, because we’ve already seen that there can be good regulations and hence desirable regulations.

    If I misunderstood your point, my mistake.

  29. On re-reading your reply, I think you are not saying that ‘We don’t need regulation.’ Just that the people proposing regulations should make their a tight case. No arguments with that.

  30. Dinesh, that is exactly what I meant.

  31. All bloggers who rant are not the enemy. They are just in formative stage.

  32. Most of the points made are valid. But what happens when , in the absence of regulations, bloggers starts posting porn (or drug making/trading secrets) on their blogs? How would you handle this?

  33. I believe that porn and drugs should be legal. Assuming that a blogger posts illegal stuff on his blog, we should arrest him after the fact, not license him before it.

  34. what? you’d rather not have the “crap” blogs around? are you serious? i love those. you hurt my feelings man.

  35. Solid post . I voted for it up on stumbleupon even though I somewhat covered it on my blog :) Anyhow I just stopped here to say howdy and compliment your efforts.See you on the World Wide :)

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