I think the title for my Guardian Column (they don’t seem to update the site) is “Our Online Selves.” That can be improved.
Here is the second installment.
“The End of Culture and Truth?”
I am a blogger. Eight years ago, saying this might have conjured up someone doing something disdainful with their finger and nose, or some fascinating example of a field position in some strange British idea of a sport. But now, most people recognize that I maintain a web-published journal or log (“blog” is a contraction of Web-log). Why would I or anyone else write publish a personal journal on the web? Who do we think we are, anyway? Great unwashed masses clogging the for a with our swollen egos. Like so much on the Internet, from the amusing video of Mentos and Diet Coke (google it!) to archives of Saturday morning cartoon characters, the common response is “Who has the time?”
A friend of mine, a professor, told me off-handedly: “I don’t read blogs. I don’t have time for anyone’s unfinished writing.” I was spluttering with annoyance at such a narrow perspective of blogs and blogging. I have kids so I get the “no time” complaint. But unfinished writing? Surely he has heard the idea that no writing is ever finished meaning that all his favorite classics were also “unfinished writing.” Who knows what undiscovered Shakespeares and Toni Morrisons are out there? I think what he really meant was that he preferred writing that had already been vetted by some authority. He wanted a seal of approval.
He is not alone. One recent book, The Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen, carries the subtitle: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture. He rails against video sharing and Wikipedia and also blogging and bloggers because they reflect a democratization of information whose cacophony will drown out the symphonies of truth and therefore “culture.” Of bloggers, he says: “The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.” His concern seems like an old, and elitist one. The masses, the average people, cannot be trusted to participate in producing culture. Democratization means that everyone has their own seal of approval. If political democracy means one person=one vote, cultural democracy seems to mean one person=one media outlet. Such creative destruction of the material basis of our lives is always unsettling. Meanwhile, the old guard, the holders of the seals, never go quietly into that good night.
The old guard has reason to look over its shoulder. According to Technorati (technorati.com), an outfit that tracks blogs and the blogosphere (the world of blogging), through April of 2007, they were tracking 70 million active blogs. And that number was reached after massive growth.
My own blogging platform (wordpress.com)has tripled in the number of blogs from 2007 until now. (By the way, the above graph is made available through a Creative Commons license but that is for a future column).
We often overlook that with the explosion of information in our Internet era is that for every outward expansion of digitized culture, for every gigabyte of data, is the expansion of indexing and searchability. Wikipedia is useless without a good search function, as is the rest of the web. Blogs and the blogging community have their own evolving system to search and sort what is useful from what is not. Let me explain with one example: tags. A tag is a label that an author, a blogger, can assign to a post or entry in a blog. For example, on my blog (http://netsweweave.wrodpress.com- you knew the plug was coming sooner or later, right?), “social networks” is one of the most used tags. You can see it in this tag cloud, a nifty bit of software that makes tags bigger based on how often they are used.
Clicking on the tag will take you to all the posts that I tagged social networks. I can also search within the wordpress community for other posts or blogs tagged social networks. He same idea organizes and makes searchable the more than 70 million blogs tracked by technorati. Tags represent the power that writers and readers have on the living web to use their own seals of approval. They have become seals of mutual interest.
At the same time, I am partially sympathetic to his criticism. There are still experts who deserve more attention. Some ideas and culture are better, more relevant, more insightful, or accurate by some set of criteria. I am just skeptical that the arrival of a new medium of publishing, the weblog, is actually the tocsin sounding of the end of culture and truth. Endless war and the dismantling of reasonable oversight of the financial sector might do a lot more damage to our world and our lives. Some of the most common tags in wordpress or technorati are Life, Friends, Love, and Humor. So are Art, Politics, Obama, Religion and Writing. Whether it is good or bad writing is up to you. Moreover, how to find potentially good writing and ideas is in your hands due to the searchability built into the internet. If people choose not to try and find quality, there is not much we can do about that. Pre-Internet, someone looking for a new book to read could choose not to read book reviews or the best seller list. Now, they have more and more transparent ways to search for quality, however they define it. The underlying technology does not budge, be it magazines or the Internet. We, the users of either, make media what is in terms of culture. I know Andrew Keen decries the democratization of culture in the expansion of authors capable of publishing themselves in a blog, and of readers who make their own choices about what to read.
I know because I read it on his blog (http://thecultoftheamateur.com/).