Larvatus Prodeo and the state of the blogosphere

Larvatus Prodeo, which can reasonably claim to have been just about the most popular and most compelling independent blogging community in the Australian blogosphere, has post its last. LP was a trailblazer in the Australian context in its early life; in its later life, much less so, but it always offered a dependably warm and learned whirlpool of debate and opinion. Founded initially as a personal blog by Mark Bahnisch back in 2005, LP swelled in numbers over the years to include contributions from many interesting and different voices, both “above the line” (including my own recent minor contributions) and indeed “below the line”. Long, often wide-ranging comment threads were peppered with interactions both fierce and friendly, and predictable skirmishes between right and left were – whilst not civil in the strict sense of the word – more civil than could be expected in the blogosphere generally. A certain camaraderie between adversaries was encouraged because the tone of debate was just that crucial bit higher than your average.

LP emerged in an era when newspapers and mainstream media (MSM) organisations were only just starting to engage with the challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet, and will exit stage left in 2012 with those same organisations having progressed and professionalised their online offerings. Anybody who involved themselves in any way with blogs since 2000 will know that that independent blogs stole a march on the MSM in the early noughties; the tide has now turned. Comment threads on articles and opinion columns have emerged as an MSM standard, supported by often ruthless paid moderators and a growing legion of willing participants. Sites like The Drum and initiatives like the Guardian’s popular if light touch Comment is Free have semi-successfully reached out to new, mainstream news-consuming audiences to an extent that independent blogs have failed to match.

So is the independent political blogosphere as we used to conceive of it dead, or dying? Certainly not everywhere; in the United States, political blogs seem to be enjoying a continuing stretch of success and influence. In the Australian context however, it does seem to be heading down that path, at least in the prevailing political, technological and economic climate. The perfect storm of rage and frustration that built up throughout the broader left in response to the continuing political success of the Howard Government has dissipated, as the fortunes of Federal Labor have waxed and waned, and then waned (and waned) some more. State governments across the country have by and large failed to engage people’s interest, and failed to inspire punters of any political stripe. Political parties by and large have failed to effectively engage with the potential that blogs offer for interaction with voters and likeminded activists.

Economically speaking – running and administering a timely and responsive blog with quality content is a considerable challenge. Just about all bloggers (shock, horror!) have busy lives: partners, friends, families, jobs, study commitments and plain old recreation time tend to impinge on one’s 24×7 content production and news processing time. The “street cred” that independent blogs initially enjoyed has slowly but steadily been overrun, overpowered by the mainstream media’s wilful use of their comparatively massive financial resources. Operating and maintaining a thriving political blog-driven community really does require not just the part-time contributions of many, but the full-time attention of at least a dedicated few.

As an IT consultant, I also find the technological aspect to the equation quite a fascinating topic. Is it possible to conduct deep and meaningful discussions on blogs? Of course it is, but in general, the presentation layer doesn’t always make it easy. As comment threads get longer and longer, on most commonly used blogging platforms, it becomes more and more difficult (and less attractive as a contributor) to maintain a serious, multi-way conversation. It’s not very nice in user experience terms to have to scroll through pages and pages of comments or down an interminably long page of comments to find the ones that interest you. Responses to comments get lost in the mix, particularly when people’s lives get in the way of the conversation, and the discussion changes course (or ebbs away) in the meantime. I do feel as though there could be some rich rewards to be found in hacking away at a WordPress or Drupal base to produce a community political blogging platform that transcends many of the limitations of the bog-standard blog platforms doing the rounds. Some of the underlying concepts that have make Facebook and Twitter such fun applications to use for millions could be brought to bear to encourage interactions between contributors to the site and produce a richer level of conversation. The barrier between posters and commenters could and should be made considerably looser. The forums in which debate occurs could be extended to offer more than the one-dimensional post-comment-comment-comment model. The community could extend beyond a site and more thoroughly into the “real”, social world.

The future for online political debate remains bright, but innovation, collaboration and luck are all going to be required in order to unlock the potential that is out there.

Johann Hari’s interview “augmentation”

Most readers at some point will have come across the writings of Johann Hari, a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Independent here in the UK. Hari has a distinctive, uncommonly direct writing voice; he is known for his strident left-wing views and for speaking out in the international media on a wide range of issues, from the immorality of some aspects of capitalism through to climate change, gay rights and the war on drugs. He is also known for his compelling interviews with global players.

It is this latter oeuvre that has landed Johann Hari in hot water. In the last twenty-four hours, it has emerged that the methodology he employs in conveying the responses of his interviewees may leave a little to be desired. Blogger Brian Whelan has discovered that some verbatim passages from Hari’s interviews attributed to the interviewees are textually identical to previously published quotes. Co-incidence? Well, no, as Johann bravely and perhaps a little naively decided to clear up himself on his blog:

When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech. (I know I write much more clearly than I speak – whenever I read a transcript of what I’ve said, or it always seems less clear and more clotted. I think we’ve all had that sensation in one form or another).

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech.

The debate has since exploded on Twitter, (#johannhari, #interviewsbyhari), with many or most contributors seemingly allowing their political views or sparkling Twitter-wit to addle their judgement. Editor of the Indy Simon Kelner has been forced to weigh in but has so far declined to act decisively, somewhat meekly noting that he has not received any complaints about Hari in the decade for which he has written for the paper. CJ Schuler has contributed a blog to the Indy website that also somehow manages to miss the point, neglecting to mention Hari’s confessional blog post.

Is Hari a great writer and iconoclast of the left? Yes. Can his occasional “rewording” (sans explanation) of the responses of his interviewees be justified, whether in the interests of clarity and flow or for any other reason? Not a chance. When I read an interview, I should have the right to assume that what it has been reported that the subject contemporaneously said is what they actually said. It is surely a prime obligation of the interviewer to make clear to the reader where any obfuscation or alteration in their presentation of the remarks of their subjects has taken place. I don’t necessarily need to read the subject’s “ums” and “ahs”, but what is conveyed to the reader needs to align as closely as possible with what they actually said. If it is permissible to substantively diverge from this for stylistic reasons, the whole point of conducting conversational interviews is called into question. What is the point – so that a hyper-edited amalgam of the subject’s best ever quotes can be published together with a bit of journalistic “over lunch”, “he shifted in his chair” wrapping?

It’s not for me to judge what The Independent should do, but I would be very surprised if the paper didn’t move immediately to implement guidelines explicitly banning this sort of practice. Johann’s interesting but ultimately self-destructive mea culpa on his blog surely would probably not have warmed the cockles of his various editors, publishers and professional colleagues. Given how unedifying this episode has been for all these folks and arguably the broader journalistic profession, one would have to think that a firm public reprimand is in order for Hari, together with some further organisational consideration regarding the rights and responsibilities of journos who blog.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

If only tardiness were next to godliness

Ardent apologies for the lack of anything interesting being here for the past two weeks. Since Easter things have been slightly mad, with numerous relatives visiting, a trip or two back to Sydney and the odd “unexpected” event.

On the upside, I have had the opportunity to see a bit more of my local stomping grounds.

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Bloody hell its getting cold down here though. Tell me Winter doesn’t get much colder than this in Melbourne. Someone?   

On writing

I am sure that some feel that it is an exaggeration to suggest that blogging is a form of writing (in the prissiest, writing is something you do when writing a book sort of way). Nevertheless, I’m fairly certain that just about anybody that blogs or indeed has tried their hand at writing anything at all will gain some form of solace from this recent article in the Guardian.

Not writing for a living provides me with lots of wonderful procrastination excuses that I would never have as a full-time writer. On the other hand, perhaps the difference between having all day and a few key hours at my disposal is not realistically so great. While I was unemployed for several months last year I certainly found that the apparent glut of free time at my fingertips did not magically and immediately translate into a welter of productive writing. When it comes to procrastination, it would seem that the human mind (or at least mine!) is remarkably adaptable in always managing to find a way.

Of the nine writers who offer up their opinions on writing, I find Hari Kunzru’s contribution to be the most similar to how I feel about writing in general:

I get great pleasure from writing, but not always, or even usually. Writing a novel is largely an exercise in psychological discipline – trying to balance your project on your chin while negotiating a minefield of depression and freak-out. Beginning is daunting; being in the middle makes you feel like Sisyphus; ending sometimes comes with the disappointment that this finite collection of words is all that remains of your infinitely rich idea. Along the way, there are the pitfalls of self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you’ve nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting. But when you’re in the zone, spinning words like plates, there’s a deep sense of satisfaction and, yes, enjoyment…

I’d be interested to hear on what other bloggers might think on this topic, and which writer’s contribution they most identify with.

Pure poison… but will it be pure bile?

I notice that Jeremy of Anonymous Lefty and several others have popped up under the Crikey blog umbrella at Pure Poison. It’s always good to see some talented folks deck out a new corner of the blogosphere; I just don’t hope that, given Pure Poison’s mission statement, it doesn’t become a bilious echo chamber:

Exposing intellectual dishonesty in the mainstream media, across the political spectrum. We’re looking at you, Bolt, Blair, Marr, Akerman, Albrechtsen, and whoever else wishes to stray onto the path of fatuous opinion.

And who audits the opinion auditors, we might well ask? ;) Here’s a counterpoint that I’d like to see this new blog tackle, just to restore an element of balance. Whenever a mainstream op-ed columnist puts something together that is logical, well-thought through and heightens the level of political debate in this country, I think these guys should really sing its praises, regardless of whether its leaning a little bit right or a little bit left. If we are seriously into the business these days of taking down ideologues, we should be big enough and intelligent enough to spot good arguments regardless of where there are coming from.

If it really is going to be all one way negative traffic – blogging as shitsheeting – then frankly it’s probably going to be all a bit too depressing. Flame war city.

The long and winding Road to Surfdom

Amidst all the euphoria of the history that has unfolded in the United States over the last 48 hours, the Australian blogosphere has lost a titan; Tim Dunlop has decided to pull the plug on The Road to Surfdom. When I first started blogging, some five years or so ago now, the Australian blogosphere was – with a few notable exceptions – a very different place. The Road to Surfdom was one of the two or three blogs out there doing the rounds that made me think – “yes, this blogging caper can work, and yes, it can mean something”. Indeed, I am sure that The Road to Surfdom has meant a lot to quite a lot of people over the last several years.

In short, Tim was one of those select few who blazed the trail of Australian political blogging.

These sorts of events do lead one to engage in a bit of introspection about the media situation we find ourselves in today, as Mark at Larvatus Prodeo has exemplified with his thoughtful post. I wonder if it is fair to say that the Australian political blogosphere is in a healthier state today than it was five years ago, or whether the reverse is true? Political blogs in the United Kingdom and particularly the United States have achieved quite a lot of significant things. By comparison, there is still some question mark out there as to the extent that Australian political bloggers have managed to “cut through” and make a tangible difference to the political environment.

To be honest, I think we just might have gone backwards. Online mainstream media outlets like News Limited have entered the blogosphere like paralytics into a rock concert, launching all of their op/ed columnists into the world of blogging whether they liked it or not. Let’s be frank. Although there are notable exceptions, like Tim’s Blogocracy, most of these efforts have been an abuse of the term “blog” at best, and an embarrassing train wreck of incomprehensibility at worst. Blogging is not about some op/ed columnist writing a column and then two hundred people leaving one-eyed comments on it. Blogging is about discussion. It is about community. It is about people swapping views, debating points and above all, interaction between the author and contributing commenters.

There are still some good blogs out there in the Australian political blogosphere, but to be honest there is a bit of a smell of staleness in the air. There’s a yawning gap out there that could be filled with something, but at the moment I’m sorry to say I am not quite sure what it is. Perhaps all these pockets of often brilliant partisanship that we have in the Australian blogosphere would mean a bit more if they were a bit more enmeshed. Australia has some great progressive bloggers. It also has some great conservative bloggers. Maybe if there were a few less drunken pot shots across the bows and a bit more collaboration between bloggers across the political divide, a blogging community could be built that really did make its presence felt in today’s seemingly infinitely distributed media world.

People love a good intelligent conversation between rivals. We love debates when both sides make good subjective points and make us think. I think we need much more of this in the Australian blogosphere.