27 July 2009

Whither bloggery?

The political season is all but over, and so the summer provides ample opportunity for bloggers to descend into a period of navel-gazing. This is intensified all the more by the use of this time to prepare the Total Politics Guide to Blogging 2009-10, which will emerge just in time for the resumption of political hostilities and give us all something to think (or take the huff) about at our respective party conferences.

I do recommend the book when it comes out, incidentally. I have the 2007-08 and 2008-09 editions on my shelves and found them to be just the thing for whetting my appetite before the journey to Aviemore and Perth respectively. I look forward to this year's Guide getting me ready for Inverness.

But I digress. Iain Dale has been rounding up bloggers named Stephen, and seeking their input on this year's work. Consequently, Stephen Glenn has been asked to consider the state of the Scottish blogosphere and has posed a few questions for the rest of us. Here, therefore, are the results of the MacNumpty Jury:

What are the greatest successes of the Scottish blogosphere?

Two connected factors are at the heart of this. The first is more abstract: there's a sense of community that seems to transcend partisan boundaries among the main bloggers, a feeling that we're all in this together, and that despite the obvious differences we can learn things from one another, back each other up, and generally make friends to the extent that we comment on each other's Facebook status. That might seem fairly basic (or cheesy) but don't take it for granted. I recall proposals by left-wing bloggers in the Westminster-centric blogosphere that the blogging awards should be boycotted because they are the brainchild of Iain Dale. By contrast, with the exception of Terry Kelly, I've never heard anyone slag off the Scottish Roundup because of the regular editors' political beliefs. We've been accused of sexism once, and I seem to remember that we had a couple of accusations that we're invading someone's privacy (if you're nervous about having your privacy invaded, then why blog?), but the politics of the authors has never been a reason to stay away from, well, anyone's site, least of all the Roundup.

The other factor is, of course, the Roundup itself. Think about it: you have people of all political persuasions and none going through as many blogs and posts as they can (from all sorts of different angles) and picking out the best. You have people from all political persuasions and none reading the suggestions. The result of that collaboration is a nexus of ideas and perspectives, a great starting point for anyone not used to the blogosphere and wanting to explore it. It's the practical achievement of the co-operative spirit we've developed.

What are we, collectively as bloggers, failing to achieve?

Positive impact on political discourse. While some politicians are more tuned into the blogosphere than others, there's a growing problem that others almost spit the word 'blogger', as though it's pejorative. Take the row over Grant's blog, before he opted not to seek the Glasgow NE candidacy; take Kez deciding to lock her blog away for a time; take the brief stushie over some of Anne's posts when she gained her seat at Holyrood; take the regular rows over what Tom Harris posts. Also, don't forget Iain Macwhirter's brief flirtation with bloggery, and the less than consensual way in which he made his entrance to the blogosphere. There's a sense that blogs (and bloggers) are still looked down on when and where it counts: some political figures might be supportive, but the Scottish press and commentariat still pooh-pooh their online cousins, and they're the ones getting read in the papers every day. The assumptions made in the MSM regarding bloggers are mostly negative but it's up to us to do what we can to challenge those assumptions and prove that we're just as good, if not better.

Which is why, I suspect, there's been no Scottish Iain Dale figure (even though there is an Iain Dale) who has managed to use a blog as a springboard to something with a wider audience. As yet, no Scottish blogger has successfully made the journey either from or to the mainstream (though, again, at the political level, we have a handful of blogging MPs, MSPs and PPCs, which can only be a good thing).

How is the Scottish Blogosphere served by the Labour, SNP, Conservative, Lib Dems, Greens and other parties?

The SNP makes up the largest chunk of the Scottish political Blogosphere but even I have to admit that there's a chunk of the SNP Blogosphere which I side-step because a) it's broadly the same slice of people who stay up till 2 so they can be the first to rant on scotsman.com and b) as such, it's all a little bit same-y (all right, you don't like the UK Government or the UK-based political parties, we've established that, now is there anything else you'd like to add?). But like all communities, it's natural that there should be some split. Many blogs (too many to name) are must-reads, while some are more suitable for fellow travellers, or Unionists looking to either be offended or pick a fight.

Conversely, Labour and the LibDems are served by a small (but well-established) group of bloggers. Labour has Yousuf, Kez and Tom Harris (sadly, it also has Terry Kelly), while the LibDem and Scottish blogospheres would undoubtedly be weaker without Caron and Stephen. Willie Rennie's also building up his online presence.

However, the paucity of Tory and Green blogs is a problem. We have STB and James, both of whom are worth the read, but who stand in something of a desert. Yes, they offer us the Tory and Green viewpoint respectively, but let's be honest: for the blogosphere to really work, we don't want "the Tory viewpoint" or "the Green viewpoint". We need "Tory viewpoints" and "Green viewpoints"

How helpful is blogging as a campaigning tool (are there examples of it making a real impact)?

People are still coming to terms with the advantages of a blog. There was an upturn in blogging candidates in the run-up to the 2007 election but many of them tailed off afterwards. Frankly, at the moment, political opponents find blogs more useful - hence the rough ride Grant got when he wasn't even the official By-Election candidate. Further, a lot of what's out there, when it's out there, is pretty anodyne. Both Brian Adam and Cathy Peattie have what might be loosely termed a blog, but when you read them, you realise that they're basically a library of press releases - nothing worth following closely unless you write for the local paper.

By contrast, Anne (the blogger who became an MSP rather than the other way around) gets it, with a good mix of the political and the personal (with actual first-person narrative). Julie Hepburn (the SNP PPC in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) combines a campaign diary with her take on the wider political issues. Julie McAnulty uses her blog effectively to highlight her NHS and PFI-based campaigns for Holyrood and North Lanarkshire Council, as well as key health issues before and after election time. While at Council level, there are loads of examples of local representatives highlighting local issues (and often giving you an idea of what makes them tick politically), all of which are invaluable to constituents (and rounder-uppers).

What do you think the next year holds in store for the Scottish blogosphere?

It's not going to be easy. It'll grow again, as candidates look to new means of publicising their campaigns, but contract very rapidly between mid-May and early June next year, only to pick up again around next autumn as Holyrood candidate lists are finished off. The partisan rhetoric will be dialled up and there's always the chance of a row spilling over into the papers (which I think is far likelier than a blog-based scoop making the headlines).

However, the Scottish political blogosphere will be overshadowed on two sides: by the rows between the differing members of the full-time political establishment, and by the inevitable confrontation between left and right in the Westminster-centric blogosphere. Next year's version of Staines/Draper will come just in time for the General Election and will completely swamp everything else online.

I do not envisage a thousand virtual flowers blooming, in the way the Obama campaign generated so much online interest last year. Rather, I see blogs being used as attack points and our collective reputation will, rightly or wrongly, take a more severe pounding than last year.

Despite that, the potential long-term gains are there. Those that survive the storm with their reputations intact will be more credible than ever before. They will have seen off, and perhaps even disproven the MSM critiques. 2009-10 and the Westminster election will be ugly, but those who get through it unscathed will be in one hell of a position for 2010-11 and the Holyrood election. Those bloggers will have more weight having stayed above the fray and will be in a better position to get that scoop or make that crossover twelve months down the line.

Next year will be rough. There will be rows. There will be damning editorials in the papers. The environment will be more hostile but the task will be simpler: keep going. If we can do that, we'll be in a position to do far better the following year.


Stephen Glenn said...

Thanks for taking the time to compile a very thorough response Will. A lot of this I already had thought of but interesting to get another angle and view on some of it.

Will said...

No probs, consider it part and parcel of the collaborative element I mentioned. :)

Good luck with the article... I look forward to reading what you think when the book comes out.

Jeff said...

Good stuff Will, not that I have much to add since I largely agree with the points you're making.

Do you think there's an argument that a strong sense of community cheapens the blogosphere brand rather than bolsters it?

Will said...

It's possible, Jeff, I have to say. On one hand, all communities develop structures and mores over time so you could argue that to really be a part of the blogosphere, you have to live up to the standards set by your peers and to excel, you have to exceed those standards. On the other hand, it can get cosy at times, there's always the risk of it just becoming a bit of a blether and it's always harder to stand out when you're in a large group. Or, for that matter, a tight-knit one.

The danger, I think, is when that community becomes a cartel, when the same people at the top stay there regardless and successfully shut out newcomers. At the moment, the community (and its open approach) creates a good support network (and decent template) for new bloggers to draw on. Also, it means that quality has a way of getting out: a good post draws comments and links, gains word-of-mouth recommendations and always has the possibility of going viral.

For me, that open community approach is the blogosphere's USP. It's if it descends into clique-ishness that we have a problem.

Jeff said...

Cheers Will, I've wondered about it for a while and your post seemed the ideal sounding board.

I think you're right in that standards are set by other sites in a 'blog-eat-blog' kind of way. The nature of the beast I guess, Charles Darwin at hyper-speed.

I think you nailed my concern with the 'bit of a blether', a glorified chat board even.

But I think I share your overriding belief that cream rises to the top, quality gets out in the end.

At the same time, I do wonder if when people dip into blogs for the first time they might just think they have interrupted a private conversation rather than finding a discussion medium that they immediately feel a part of.

Hmm, I feel a blog post coming on....

Jeff said...

(Sorry, that last one was a bit scatty. I'm still winding down after a particularly punishing shift)

Will said...

I see what you're saying, Jeff, even despite the punishing shift at work (I sympathise, by the way, after four days of being assigned to the Urgent payments, and being rota-ed to "Assist on Urgents" this morning, the novelty of invoices from the Capital Accounts department has well and truly worn off - especially now I'm only referring to the Major Works department as "Tweedle-dumbass and Tweedle-dickhead") !

Anyway, I think the conversational approach isn't the worst, but then I've always seen the blogosphere less as a debating chamber and more a chat between mates in a pub. Like any pub session, people walk in and out as they choose so it's not overly hard for people to join in the conversation.

The danger is when it turns into a clique. To keep up the pub metaphor, the last thing we want is to turn into the online equivalent of the old gits in the Tap Room at my local, who look at you in horror if you walk in while they're playing dominoes, and start complaining bitterly if you ask to switch over from the racing...

Jeff said...

Nowt wrong with a bit of dominoes but that aside, I fully agree.

Ted Harvey said...

Will as you know I’m not a blogger, so hopefully I can still make a remark or two.

You succinctly describe the aim of Scottish blogging as, “Positive impact on political discourse”. The more I think about it, the more I have to say that when I came upon the blogging sphere, I saw it as an alternative to conventional Scottish party politics; as opposed to having the aim of helping influence those politics.

This was well after I became thoroughly disillusioned – no, thoroughly sickened - by the un-intellectual charnel house that goes for party politics in Scotland (all praise Scottish Labour, dominant for a generation, for having rendered it thus).

My conclusion, however, arguably has the effect of rendering the blogshpere as something marginal and without mainstream influence or impact. Hmm.

Re Jeff’s question about “when people dip into blogs for the first time they might just think they have interrupted a private conversation” . I was recently bemused when somebody asked me how it was that I ‘was allowed onto’ a blog and how come I was ‘allowed to’ make comments; I, of course, explained that I had just had to force myself to overcome my natural strong shyness :-)