Evolution, not revolution: An academic examines the blogosphere


There has been much examination of what blogs are, aren’t and the ways in which they challenge established and ‘traditional’ mass media. imageHere I will move away from these usual questions in favour of a more critical approach that tries to identify reasons why this discussion exists at all.


  • Why are blogs considered to be such a threat in the first place?
  • If consumers are indeed turning to blogs and abandoning the established mass media, what is it that blogs have and TV, radio and print media do not have (or have lost)?
  • Is this in fact a winner takes all scenario?
  • Instead of competition, could a symbiotic relationship be created between the two?

Defining a blog

What exactly is a blog, from a technical point of view? This is a basic, but necessary step. According to the Oxford English dictionary, “blog” means:

  • “To write or maintain a weblog. Also: to read or browse through weblogs, esp. habitually.”

This is merely a description of the physical process of writing or maintaining a record or engaging in a debate or dialogue on some particular object, issue or personality. There is great diversity present in the blogosphere, a lively discussion. It is far from a homogenous zone of opinion and content. At times it can be very heated and emotional.

In Gary Bunt’s recent book, iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam, a chapter (four) is devoted to the issue of the Islamic blogosphere. With reference to this particular segment of the blogosphere, Bunt makes some interesting observations. One of the significant ones is that the Internet provides a space for voices that may not otherwise be heard, as they have no ability to be heard via established mass media. This is not to say that people are necessarily listening or paying attention, but a blog gives an opportunity for ‘little’ voices to be expressed.

He also observes that a blog engages in grassroots discussions, matters that are closer and more relevant to the daily lives of many people than what appears in the mass media. These debates may be heated at times, but they provides an outlet for discussing critical issues, thus providing some form vent or psychological crutch (depending on the nature of the conversation).  image

Something missing in established mass media?

If in fact the public is starting to turn away from established mass media outlets in favour of blogs, an implication is that there is something that they are getting from blogs, which is not present in the mass media.

What is this missing something? And why is it no longer or not found in the established mass media?

In everyday conversations with friends and family, it is not uncommon to talk about the mass media in some way. Why am I paying for a TV licence when there is nothing worth watching on TV? I have yet to meet one Russian who admits to liking the reality TV show Dom 2. It is a serial based roughly on Big Brother (but I think actually worse!). They usually cringe, which is soon followed by a monologue about filth of pornography taking over the TV screens. Dom 2 has been broadcasting for many years, in spite of this observed lack of popularity.

Several news production processes seem to divide or at least alienate the journalist from the citizen. One of these is the perennial academic gripe that news is trivialised and becomes entertainment, thereby trivialising the event and preventing the public from being able to exercise sound judgement as they do not have the necessary information to do so.

The journalist’s assumption that in order to remain ‘objective’ there needs to be some kind of emotional distance or remoteness from an event or story may actually prove to be an additional disadvantage, on occasion. This form of self-imposed isolation may incur some kind of remoteness from grassroots issue concerns and attitudes to issues, which in effect can isolate a media outlet from its readers, listeners and viewers. A lack of empathy on the part of the journalist toward the plight of people in the news (in case of some sort of emergency, disaster or crisis) may be perceived by the community. Erecting a wall between professional ethics on the one hand ignores basic human emotions on the other.

The news, particularly broadcast news, is very superficial. A number of Latvian friends say that they prefer not to watch news as it depresses them, the result of an overwhelming focus on negative events. imageOn one of my trips to Ekaterinburg in the Ural region of Russia, I was lecturing to a group of students in the International Journalism Programme. Out of curiosity I asked them, ‘Who watches the state news?’. Most did not; one student did. What’s more, she had a positive opinion on the content. I asked her why, to which she replied that the positive spin of the state news was a good way to escape the depressing realities of everyday life.

News has taken on, in general, a very descriptive nature rather than an analytical one.

Selecting voices

The news industry, like mass media in general, been undergoing (and still are) massive changes in their organisational structure and the way they do business. News organisations are slimmer and operating on a round-the-clock basis. But the content can be considered to be remote from the lives of many customers.

A frank and open debate is for the most part not possible in the mainstream mass media. There is a tendency to ‘weed-out’ views that do not conform with the media outlet in question. To illustrate this point I shall use an example from Sweden. In terms of freedom of speech and freedom of press, Sweden consistently ranks in the top countries. This means that there is little or no state interference in the content of the mass media.

Yet censorship remains. A debate article appeared in the Swedish newspaper Expressen, which concerned the Latvian economic crisis and the Swedish Swedbank. Perhaps the most interesting part of this article was the reader comments. Some of these included (paraphrased): Sweden had given Latvia a firm lesson in capitalism, that Latvians were irresponsible. Another comment that all three Baltic States should be expelled from the European Union.

I wrote a comment saying that Sweden is not really in a position to be giving lessons in capitalism, that Swedbank is facing a very difficult period in its eastern markets (such as Latvia and Ukraine). Further, spending beyond one’s means is far from a solely Latvian phenomenon.

This was posted, but removed within 24 hours. This hints at the role in censorship that is played by the mass media themselves, in a country where freedom of speech is supposedly cherished. image

Development of new communication technologies, together with a desire by some to have information and views that are underrepresented (if at all) entered in to the public domain creates not only an opportunity for citizens, but the motivation to to become involved perhaps through a sense or injustice or as a form of moral or ethical obligation.

Blogs not only provide an outlet to vent or publicise on the part of the blog creator or maintainer, but also is an avenue for readers and commentators to engage in conversations and dialogues that do not occur in the mainstream mass media. Readers and commentators can pick and choose what appeals to them and engage in a frank and perhaps even interactive conversation with other users who share similar interests (but not necessarily similar views).

Winner take all?

There are several inherent and implied assumptions in the debate concerning how blogs will damage or challenge established mass media:

  • That there is some form of relationship between mass media outlets and bloggers that involves conflict and competition;
  • That this conflict or competition shall only cease after one of the parties has ‘won’ the battle, and consequently the ‘loser’ has been put out of the game.

Instead of seeing what is currently happening through the prism of conflict, a more apt way of viewing and understanding what is happening is through a prism of evolution.

An evolution is taking place within the information sphere; it is readjusting the structures and processes as a result of its changing environment.

In competition or co-operation with mass media?

It is difficult to move beyond arguments, such as: bloggers are not trained communication professionals (like journalists) and therefore co-operation is not possible. Other arguments imply some sort of irreconcilable disparity based on knowledge, education, organisational backing and support (therefore access to resources). These arguments highlight the threat perceived from the citizen journalist.

After the initial concerns about the role of the citizen journalist, events such as 7 July, 2005, in London imageand the Mumbai attacks have shown citizen journalists to be useful sources for law enforcement agencies and mass media. A number of established media outlets have incorporated citizen journalism into their news production structure. One concrete example is CNN’s iReport. Reporting on stories like civic unrest in Iran and disaster in Haiti has proved their worth.

Other ‘threats’ to the established mass media have existed; there have been dire predictions about the future state of quality of reporting. However, after the dust has settled, many of those predictions have proven unfounded or at least not coming to fruition. Can the success of allowing space for citizen journalists in the established media structures be replicated within the context of blogging? Only time shall tell if this is possible.

Gary Bunt, who wrote about the Internet and Islam, noted that at times within the context of the Iraq conflict, bloggers provided the only means of information coming out from certain zones. Journalists are a target for the various belligerents and are restricted in their capabilities here. The information published by bloggers is especially important for families and friends of people in these zones where traditional mass media are not able to operate. Bloggers provide an information bridge.

And it is potentially some kind of starting point to consider how the established media outlets and bloggers can voluntarily work together based upon some form of common aim or aspiration. Both parties cover human interest stories in different styles and from different angles at times to address public interest and needs.

Flickr images by users Cody, chucks, Mikey G Ottawa, Doing Media Studies