As old as publishing

I just caught this today via my inbox and O’Reilly Radar in turn: a New York Times editorial from yesterday about the similarities between the English “Free Press” circa 1918, as described by Hilaire Belloc in his book of the same name, and the current state of the blogosphere. The editorial says:

There are whole paragraphs in Belloc’s essay where, if you substitute “blogs” for “the Free Press,” you will be struck by the parallels. He notes that the journals of the free press seldom pay their way and that they often suffer from the impediment of “imperfect information,” simply because it is not in the politicians’ interests to speak to them. They tend to preach to the converted. And they are limited by the founder’s vision. “It is difficult,” Belloc writes, “to see how any of the papers I have named would long survive a loss of their present editorship.”

Belloc’s point is not to expose the limitations of bloggers – excuse me, the Free Press. It is to show how, imperfect as they are, they can contribute enormously to our ability to learn what’s going on. Anyone who spends much time reading political blogs will hear a familiar note – in far greater prose – among Belloc’s certainties. He writes, in short, as a blogger of his own time.

While I think this holds for public blogs like The Daily Kos or Kottke, and I’d argue that sites like Valleywag and Gawker are more like the mainstream media, it’s wrong to draw parallels between blogging and the media in every case. Blogging is simply a technology that allows you to post largely unordered text to a website in primarily chronological order; it’s not an ethos, or a political ideal, or a new type of self-expression. What the perceived parallels with the Free Press do underline is the fact that people have been undergoing these same processes for centuries; having thoughts, noticing things, and writing them down. All that’s changed is the communication method that gets them to us (a not insignificant fact that allows writings by you or I to have the same potential audience as articles in the Times).

For example, although this particular blog post is more or less an editorial, I also use my Elgg blog to make private notes to myself. When I start writing my book in earnest later in the year, I’ll use the tagging feature to link together concepts and allow myself to more easily keep track of ideas for the first draft. I’ll sometimes pass ideas to Dave and Misja that nobody else can see. All of this is blogging, but it’s beginning to look less and less like a media publication.

The other major difference is commenting and trackbacking. The media is largely one-way; a blog, assuming it’s non-private, is usually a conversation. Even socially unaware blogging systems like Blogger and MovableType allow for a deeper learning experience, rather than what is basically just dictation. Corrections can be made, new information fed back to the author, and a more collaborative experience had. Things have moved on, and I would argue that these developments are considerably more free when considered outside the scope of the traditional media paradigm.

Speaking of one-way conversations, if you’re interested you can now subscribe to my blog via email, using the excellent FeedBurner (if you’re not already, click through to my blog page so you’re viewing pages with my template; there’s a link in my sidebar). Anyone with an RSS feed – that’s every Elgg user and most other bloggers besides – can do this, and it seems to work well. Although most of you are clued into the read-write web (if you’ll pardon my jargon), a lot of people aren’t and aren’t really sure about this whole blogging thing, so this might be a useful tool for them.

(Photo credit: Old News, originally uploaded by

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