I attended a very strange panel talk tonight at the Berkeley CyberSalon on the topic of elitism in media and blogging. Veteran New York Times tech reporter John Markoff was on the panel, along with Steve Gillmor; two of the founders of BlogHer, Lisa Stone and Jory Des Jardins; and Joshua Greenbaum, whose introduction I couldn’t make out (but this seems to be him: programmer, tech trade journalist and enterprise-software consultant).
From the opening question to the panelists — “Is big media elitist?” — moderator Andrew Keen made his own agenda clear. Keen is a podcaster and blogger who has made a stir recently by polemicizing against Web 2.0’s participatory ideal; he sees it as a culture-destroying Marxist delusion. And I’m afraid his determination to tar the blogosphere as a force for anarchy and narcissism warped the evening, turning back the clock on the entire conversation about blogging and journalism that so many thoughtful people — including many in the room tonight — have been advancing for years.
Keen had allies, including Greenbaum, who, as far as I could tell, seemed mostly concerned about the way blogs and the Net have begun to undermine the business model of print journalism. Next to Keen and Greenbaum, Markoff’s quiet skepticism about aspects of the blog-triumphalist position seemed respectful and valuable. Meanwhile, Stone and Des Jardins, with the help of many in the audience, took the blogosphere’s side, arguing the value of letting new voices be heard.
To Keen, that sort of talk is part of a “cult of creative self-realization.” “The purpose of our media and culture industries,” he writes, “is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent”; blogging opens the door to too many mediocre voices. When he tried to apply this critique tonight, Des Jardins shot it down with a single line that exposed its irrelevance to the conversation: “The cream also rises in the blogosphere.”
“What is the value in sharing experiences?” Keen asked at one point, with a touch of disdain in his voice — as if he wanted to say to the entire universe of millions of bloggers, “I grow weary of your scribblings.” My jaw dropped. Isn’t “sharing experiences” the root of literature, the heart of conversation, a primal impulse of our humanity? Who would sneer at it?
At the heart of Keen’s complaint and others like it is an outmoded habit of thought: an assumption that every blogger seeks and might be owed the same mass-scale readership that old-fashioned media have always commanded. But it just doesn’t work that way. Publishing is no longer a scarce resource (as Tim Bishop well put it). The blogger who is telling the story of her final exam or his fraying marriage or her trouble with her two-year old? None of them cares whether Keen reads them, and they certainly don’t expect him to. Their “shared experiences” don’t diminish the opportunities for the kind of “expert journalism” that Keen values. He can keep patronizing the “elite talents.” I will, too — I want to read John Markoff and bloggers.
A year-and-a-half ago I led a discussion at BloggerCon III about blogging and journalism. I started with the assumption that the “War between Bloggers and Journalists” was over; we were are all — however different our delivery mechanisms and business models — in the same boat, searching for information and voices we can trust, trying to inform and entertain and move the people who read our work, whether it is on paper or screen, whether we’re paid or not, whether we’re read by ten or ten million.
At the end of tonight’s event, Mary Hodder, who was sitting in the row in front of me, turned and asked, in a tone of disbelief,
“Did we just sit through another ‘Bloggers vs. Journalists’ panel?” Somehow, we had.
I’d rather have seen the group take up the provocative challenge from Markoff, who started the evening wondering why the same era that has seen the vast increase in online self-expression has also seen such a vast concentration of wealth. “What’s the relation between everyone having a voice in society and the fact that people don’t participate in the society?,” he asked. Could the blogosphere be a gigantic instance of Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance”?
Me, I doubt it. But it’s a far more intriguing and sophisticated critique of bloggers than just sniffing that they’re amateurish and badly written and beneath our notice — but, whoops!, they’re also driving our culture to hell in a handbasket.
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