Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Back on the pesky internet

Well, I am re-entering the over-heated atmosphere of the blogosphere after some time out as a stateless satellite circling in orbit. Actually, that metaphor doesn't work, because the last thing I've felt was uplifted these last few months. More like struggling in the shadowlands, weighed down by sadness and fear, unable to see the sky for the toxic fog of despair. Grief, exhaustion, real life, piles of admin, inability to cope with emails and a need to hide away and be silent. Thank you to everyone who has supported me in silence, in companionship and solidarity these last few months. It has been appreciated

Anyway, I am relaunching myself into the debate and raising my voice once more into the cacophonous febrile slum of what Andrew Keen refers to as The Cult of the Amateur as the 'great seduction' of the 'superficial observations' that are 'decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced (“disintermediated,” to use a FOO Camp term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists.'

Oh woe, and much wailing, and gnashing of keyboards and throwing of toys.

The reasons for my recent online disappearance are well-documented, the reason for breaking silence now at this late hour of the evening is that I am about to go onto Radio 5 live and participate in a midnight debate about Is the Internet Getting Out of Control with presenter Richard Bacon, a chap from Microsoft and Mr Keen himself. I've spent the afternoon reading around what other people have to say on the subject of The Pesky Internet Isn't It Killing Culture and as an awful lot of stuff has been said already by people better qualified by me, I can only cross my fingers and hope that my midnight bletherings don't let the side down too much.

For some good debate on Mr Keen's ideas, see Newsnight comment thread, the Guardian and oh, here, here, here...

...That is one of the joys of the internet, you see, I don't have to trek off to a library, and pile through a dusty series of articles. I can just click, skim, filter, make notes and read without breaking a sweat. Has some of what I have read today been rubbish, poorly-written, uninspiring tripe? Yep - by bloggers and journalists both. Has some been thought-provoking, well-written and stimulating? Ditto. Am I capable of discerning which is which without a ''cultural gatekeeper'' holding my hand? Sure. Have I now got a fair idea of what Mr Keen is going to say and what he has said without actually having to read his book? Probably. Is this rattling Mr Keen's ivory tower? I expect so.

For the people most threatened by the revolting masses talking back are those paid to opine from the tops of the mountain: the old school, mainstream media commentators and opinion journalists. If there are people out there who will do what you do, for free, for the sheer pleasure of it, and who are quite capable of dissecting and critiquing your piece, and who, in doing so, prove themselves equally impassioned, equally well-informed, then that is a threat. Mediocrity will suffer. Too damn bad.

I remember how I used to work on film and music magazines before the days of the internet. Bumptious twenty-something hacks in creaky leather jackets would sneer and bash away, producing pages of overblown, self-referential prose, full of in-jokes and chippy snipes about the latest albums and movies. They considered themselves to be swaggering demi-gods, poorly-paid and foul-mouthed though most of them were. The internet changed all that: now, reviews of gigs and shows come in direct from the audience. The readers disagreed, they argued, they wrote with zip and fire and humour, and the old writers found themselves trounced, bitchslapped or just yawned at. And fired. Now, music and film magazines have much of their content online, and films and albums are rated by a democratic process of readers' reviews, and are the better and the fairer and the more honest for it.

Mr Keen may say that he is concerned for the fate of the musician, the artist, the author, but how many music-makers, wordsmiths and artists have pressed their noses against the glass wall of the profit-driven gatekeepers for years because they were not deemed ''commercial'' enough? How many great artists and writers died in shivering, unappreciated poverty? Surely we should celebrate the democratisation of content that allows people to vote with their feet?

There are millions of blogs, but there is also wall-to wall proliferation of mainstream media choices, hundreds of magazines, news sources, radio and TV stations and we pick and stitch together our own media landscapes that reflect our own interests and prejudices. We shape our own window onto the world. To lambast bloggers for raising our squeaky voices and being part of this crowded landscape is to miss the point: nobody forces anybody to read blogs at gunpoint, and blogs are in any case, not billed as news sources but opinion sources, voices that you can tune in and out at will, or switch off entirely. Much like the pages and pages of comment I pick through in the weekend newspaper supplements, or the magazines I choose to leave on the shelf, or the Talk radio I don't tune into.

There has been messianic talk of a 'new connectivity', Web 2.0 as a successor to the 'human potential movement', how we're all wired now into a hive mind, a collective consciousness, a democratic creativity, we the media, we the audience. That's just as overblown as the Luddite snobbery that purses its lips and dismisses all user-generated content as the proles stampeding outside the gates of the Winter Palace. The internet is a tool, nothing more. How it is used reflects human behaviour.

And how you react to it says much about your faith in, or mistrust of, human nature. I'm pleased to say I come down on the side of it being positive. Messy, yes, muddled, contradictory, with many failings and flaws, and with genius and sadness and joy and sweetness and nonsense and venality and viciousness all muddled up together. That's what being human is. That's what we are. That's what our internet says about us, and to be human is to be amateur, to be flawed, to be learning, to be uncontrollable, to be free, to be real.


Blogger RachelC said...

Oh well said. I;ve seen Keen talk a few times and he drives me nuts - he has a soem good points but it's all wrapped up in fear. He;s doign a very good job though of promoting himself and his book and has no problem using the tools and people he decries to do so.

November 08, 2007 12:11 am  
Blogger The Creator said...

Cripes, entirely by chance, I seem to be among the first to have read the first major post for several months by one of the undoubted stars of the blogosphere.

I am not sure what that says about me or about you, Rachel, other than that chance just works that way: unpredictable, impersonal, definitely odd.

Golly, just like life, eh? (How very wise I must be to come up so effortlessly with such insights.)

Still, if I look forward to more such random events (at least up to a pont), I know I can definitely say how very, very, very happy I am to see you back.

You can of course (OF COURSE!) also say hello to me on my own baby blog, The Daily Brute.

But much, much more to the point, what a pleasure to have you back with us.


November 08, 2007 12:16 am  
Blogger Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Wow, that's you back with a bang! Great post. Missed you. Glad you're back.

November 08, 2007 6:28 am  
Blogger Justin said...

Bloody brilliant post, Rachel. Welcome back.

November 08, 2007 7:38 am  
Blogger ejh said...

How many great artists and writers died in shivering, unappreciated poverty?

It's perhaps for this reason that I don't entirely agree with you. I don't think that if we mourn the poverty and obscurity of greater writers, it makes total sense to laud a process whereby critics would be unpaid and obscure.

There's a lot of value in the proliferation of comment but there are sizeable drawbacks, too, just as while it is good, up to a point, to applaud "democratisation", the democratic process comes with an awful lot of trash attached. It's like the TV shows which run a bar below the picture saying "we want to hear YOUR views. I'd much rather run a bar saying "I don't want to hear your views unless you've taken the trouble to think them out carefully and present them properly".

It's common to call this view "elitist" but I don't think it is. But I'm not a populist. I don't believe that any person's view is just as good as any other's: I think that depends upon their content. I applaud the widening of access - I have to, I participate in it myself - but I'm well aware that the vast majority of what we then get is trash, no better informed that the saloon-bar bigot and often more malign. It can be a democracy, but it can also be a democracy of the loudest mouth. Like pop music, the most populist of the arts, to which everybody has access, where everybody can have their go and their say, and in which is dominated by mediocrity, hype and by people on the make, while originality and integrity take their usual place in the freezing attic. And as for pop music critcism, rarely has there been a field more dominated by the meretricious and the egocentric.

That's not to say that much mainstream, well-paid comment isn't mediocre, complacent and contemptible in a variety of ways. It is, and it is quite true to say that it feels threatened by the internet and that this is good. It's good that the internet provides alternatives, both in the sense of different viewpoints and in the sense of access to different information. And it's good that it produces a stream of commentors, often better than the ones who they challenge and which they may even replace. But we also face the problems of being swamped in a tide of rubbish, with the intelligent voices being drowned out by the stupid. The Marketplace of Ideas does not always have a good record for the wisdom of its choices.

Forster said Two Cheers For Democracy: I'd say Two Cheers For The Internet. But only two, because I think there's a place for a paid commentariat, I think it's a useful thing to have, I think that professionalism is very often better than amateurism. And because there's much, too much garbage about elsewhere.

November 08, 2007 8:10 am  
Blogger Victoria said...

I originally came to your blog from girlwithaonetrackmind, re the stalking, left it in order not to be able to accuse myself of rubbernecking re your 7/7 experience, came back today via jonnyb and was bowled over by this excellent post. Wonderfully well expressed; bloody deserves to be paid for so I hope your finances can cope with the fact that it (presumably) won't be. No fairness, that's what.

November 08, 2007 8:29 am  
Blogger Brennig said...

I want to say "Yay! You rock!" but on second thoughts my heavy-handed use of irony might be inappropriate.

Rachel, your well-founded views backed by an insightful, beautifully crafted argument once again show why you are a much better read than the vast majority of political/current affairs writers.

The British public are dying at the hands of The Cult If Celebrity, which is being thrust down our collective throats by The Conspiracy To Keep The People From Thinking.

The partisan nature of mainstream political journalism proves that true independence of thought is compromised. The solution isn’t to read The Daily Tabloid and The Daily Broadsheet, the solution is to read a wider range of views than our mediocre publications offer us.

Your blog – and others like yours – continue to prove the immense value of being able to read the views of a wide range of thinkers.

Good luck in the broadcast.

November 08, 2007 10:22 am  
Blogger zoe said...

lovely to have you back again, Rachel - and what a post, m'dear. Good luck in the broadcast.

November 08, 2007 10:56 am  
Blogger Debi said...

Brilliant and articulate post! So glad you're back with us and sending your powerful words back out here.

November 08, 2007 11:56 am  
Blogger Henry North London said...

It is good to see you back and on form Rachel

I love the last paragraph, it is in my estimation, a perfect summing up of the imperfect human condition

All my regards

Henry North x

November 08, 2007 3:33 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks ever so much everyone for the welcome back!

ehh, thanks for your thoughtful contribution. I possibly overegged what I was saying about the bolshy music/film writers - the contents of the magazines changed in that the reviews were less verbose and self-congratulatory, and more user-friendly, but the journalists who came on board focused their attention on getting really good interviews. And that seems to me to be a better use of journalism - not the death of the critic, but the deployment of skills and contacts to benefit the audience by giving them something they can't usually get for themselves. I am not arguing for the death of quality journalism or professional critical writing.

There is a 'long tail', the ease by which comment and content can be generated and published means you have to work harder and wade through more to get to it. For example, in a room of 100 people, if 20 of them are fascinating to you, you don't have to work hard to find them. Whereas if 200 out of a room of 1000 people are talented...

I don't know anyone who relies purely on blogs for news, and I think Keen takes his arguments too far with his sneering dismissals - its ok to be elitist with high standards but he comes across as a horrible frightened sbob.

Anyway - thanks again everyone - it is good to be back and wanting to write again.

November 08, 2007 4:40 pm  
Blogger Tim said...

Top stuff, Rachel. I missed you.

November 08, 2007 5:13 pm  
Blogger Graham the Funky Aardvark said...

Welcome back - good to see you here again

November 08, 2007 8:53 pm  
Blogger Payasoru said...

What led me into blogging was an increasing irritation at the ill-informed, ill-researched, superficial pontificating of specialist columnists and other journos on the subject I actually know rather a lot about - the work and workings of the court system. So, who's the expert?

November 08, 2007 9:23 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Well, that's another very good point payasoru. Keen has a very gilded view of the journalist. Why should I read the words of a journalist who got a science degree 15 years ago writing about a science discovery, when I can read the blog of the lab assistant? If I want to find out about what goes on in a Magistrates Court, then I go and look at yours or Bystanders' blogs. ( In fact, when I DID want to know what happened in Magistrates Courts, as a result of a bit of bother with that harassing woman's case, your blog and Bystander's blogs were far more useful than anything else I found, apart from possibly the CPS prosecution guidelines). There is no journalist writing a diary of life on the Bench so without blogs, I simply wouldn't have had access to the information.

Ditto, NHS Blog Doctor or any of the ambulance dispatcher/police officer blogs are far more revealing about life in the NHS or emergency services than a journalist or film crew hanging out with Blue Watch for a week.

Keen seems to think all blogs do is sqwark opinion: they do far more. He also monetises everything - did Pepys write for fame or fortune? The point of blogging is not to make money.

Blogs complement the MSM, they do not threaten it. They might threaten some up-themselves wofflers with columns, but that is hardly a great loss.

The more I think of it, the more surprised I am that I kept my temper with that man.

November 09, 2007 7:45 am  
Blogger Henry North London said...

Gosh... I stumbled on to someone's blog the other day and I was able to give them the lowdown about the psychiatric services in their area with a much more personal touch than any leaflet or other NHS propaganda..

Shucks... Anyway Good for you Rachel

I wish I could keep my temper in check as well as you do.

November 09, 2007 9:00 am  
Blogger MarkF said...

Nice to see you back - very interesting post.

Im afraid Web 2.0 was so last summer as Web 3.0 is out now (see

Geospatial Web eh ? I still like a natter at the local corner shop...

November 09, 2007 11:58 am  
Blogger Hendo said...

welcome back hun, i was running out of reasons to boot the PC.

November 10, 2007 12:10 am  
Blogger High Maintenance Femme said...

My God I was shouting at the computer when that idiot Keen started spouting. I think you handled it very well, he's an elitest snob!

November 10, 2007 12:27 pm  
Blogger Kris said...

Love it: "Is the getting internet out of control?"

No, I don't suppose the cultural gatekeepers like being a voice among many, seeing their authority and power erode. Too bad. Get some humility, MSM.

Blogging has exploded precisely because the majority of us haven't been listened to for a very long time; blogging gives me my voice.

Bloggers stopped Bush's immigration bill going through congress; bloggers bust inconsistencies in business and government; and bloggers helped bring FJ Wacko to justice.

Not everyone will agree with every outcome attributed to bloggers coming together as a community- and that's tough for the people who seek to control. It's called democracy.

PS Constable Bitseach and I are glad to see you back in action. x

November 10, 2007 5:56 pm  
Blogger Leighton Cooke said...

Welcome back, Rachel. You make some very good points and at the end of the day blogging is a tool to deconstruct the reality that has been forced on us by the powers that be for generations and replace it with our own version. We learn from each other on an open playing field and that is our strength.

November 10, 2007 6:51 pm  
Blogger Davide Simonetti said...

Well said Rachel, and welcome back.
Top post!

November 11, 2007 10:53 am  

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