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?