Monday March 27, 2006
What is a blog? Well, there’s the most frequently asked question of the age. But the answer has nothing to do with the tools and technology that make this phenomenon possible. No, it’s quite simple, actually: a blog is a person in conversation. In this age when every message is manufactured, metered, spun, filtered, and flacked, that is precisely what makes blogs so refreshing: their humanity.
And that is why a scandal erupted in the blog world when George Clooney announced that he did not write what was attributed to him at HuffingtonPost.com, a US group blog. The site’s owner, Arianna Huffington, confessed to stitching together Clooney’s quotes from interviews, including one in the Guardian, because she liked what he had to say. For a few hours, she argued this was acceptable because his PR person had approved.
But bloggers’ blood boiled over and Huffington was forced to recant. Because I was one of those bothered bloggers, she called me from her Caribbean vacation and promised to list sources of quotes when she did this again. I argued that was not good enough. I said that bloggers make a deal with their public to be themselves. Anything else is a lie. I suggested simply linking to quotes she liked. She decided instead to make clear when she acts as a star’s Boswell (which, by the way, would enable her to turn even the dead into commentariat contributors: what would Jesus blog?). And so, another grating, mashed-up internet word was born: “bozblogging.” Scandal closed.
The New York Times recently reported that Walmart’s PR company was spinning the retail superpower’s side of controversies with bloggers, one of whom was caught foolishly quoting press releases without attribution. On my blog, I advised my online compatriots to always reveal when PR people inspire or inform what they write and to be transparent about any relationships. But then I realised that these sensible rules are not followed even among journalists in America, where PR people feed news outlets both stories and lunch. If I edited a newspaper in the States – which will never happen, believe me – I’ve long dreamed of declaring flack-free days, proclaiming: “Everything in today’s paper is the product of real reporting!”
The Huffington and Walgate affairs reveal less about blogs than about the media world they leave behind, where the words attributed to the powerful, rich and famous rarely actually come out of their mouths anymore. We all know it. Politicians have their spokesmen, stars their press agents, moguls their speechwriters. Lately, a few media magnates have made stirring speeches declaring a citizens’ revolution in media, impressing even their detractors. But I know one of their speechwriters and even contributed to one of his messages. Speeches and press releases are the synthesised voices of corporations, not people. That’s how things work. Or how they worked.
Now I don’t mean to argue that blogs are perfect, only that they are new – and so they give us the opportunity to re-examine the presumptions and promises of old media. The news rules of the blog world: transparency is our highest virtue. The lecture gives way to the conversation. And the human voice is more highly valued than institutional positioning. The seminal book of this new medium, The Cluetrain Manifesto (at Cluetrain.org), puts it this way: “Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors. Conversations among human beings sound human … The internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.” We’re just people talking. And we can recognise the authentic voice of other people, even blogging stars. The blog world will defend its humanity – which is its authority – from fakery and, I hope, flackery. But that brings us to another danger lurking for blogs: the siren call of celebrity. That’s really what got Huffington in trouble. Surely it was Clooney’s name, face and fame she wanted as much as his thought. But what happens to fame in this new world? Warhol may have been right that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but today, more than one web wag has said, everyone will be famous to 15 people. One can only hope that fragmenting media also fragments fame.
All this should be seen as a cautionary tale for what has been called Guardian Unlimited’s HuffingtonPost, Comment is Free. So far, this group blog has been filled with the smart thoughts of people whose names I mostly do not recognise. Let’s just pray that we never see a post about the Iraq war pop up there under a picture of Kate Moss.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com