11 July 2010

Rumours of the Scottish Blogosphere's Death are Premature

It's seems fitting that, with changes afoot to the Scottish Roundup, there are reflections on the state of the Scottish blogosphere and its future, with a particularly considered and typically thoughtful (albeit pessimistic) post on the matter from Stuart. So I thought I'd chip in.

Basically, in terms of the Roundup, something has happened that I don't think Duncan or I envisaged. Duncan's been putting shedloads of effort into the Roundup since its inauguration in 2006, and since he invited me onto the bandwagon just under three years ago, it's usually been the case that when one of us is tied up with more pressing matters, the other one can pick up the slack one way or the other. At any given moment, one or both of us had a fair amount of time and energy to devote both to our own blogs and to the wider blogosphere, and I guess that as a result of that, neither he nor I anticipated that real life was capable of kicking both of us squarely in the nuts at the same time. However, it would seem that this is what has happened.

For my part, the work-life balance seems to be getting skewed to the point that it's harder and harder to be bothered even switching the computer on, let alone blogging of an evening, and the energy I do have is going into other social commitments such as being a needlessly violent left back on the 5-a-side pitch. And the World Cup hasn't helped: total political apocalypse could have taken place, but frankly, I've been talking with people more about the latest prediction by Paul The Psychic Octopus. So with the World Cup almost over, and a few days off booked to recharge the batteries, I'm hoping that soon enough, I'll be back to what passes for normal service.

And there seems to be an air of general blog fatigue setting in, but I'd say that's down more to the post-election comedown, particularly as we all adjust to the new circumstances we all find ourselves in.

But there's something I want to pick up on that Stuart said - and I'm not just quoting this for the flattering reference:

It would take someone with a longer term view of things to put that into perspective, but perhaps it's instructive to consider who might replace or supplant the likes of Will, Duncan, Scottish Unionist, Scottish Tory Boy, IoC, Malc, Yousuf and James.

The short answer is probably no one really. I'm not sure if the frequency of new blogs is decreasing, but there certainly seem little sign of a Scottish Guido or Iain Dale appearing.

Well, I've always said that an Iain Dale-type figure for the Scottish blogosphere might not be the worst thing, but despite that, I'm sceptical at the thought that a Scottish Guido, or even a direct Scottish equivalent of Iain Dale is the answer. Imagine the combination of the political landscape, the media and the blogosphere as what we'll refer to for want of a better term as a 'nexus'. The Scottish political nexus is, thanks to the different institutions, parties, states of parties, newspapers and bloggers, a massively different beast to its Westminster-focused equivalent. Accordingly, I can't help but question whether simply importing concepts and approaches from the latter will be of any use to the former. Of course, that's not to say that just because Guido or Iain Dale are successful in the Westmnister blogosphere, they wouldn't work in the Scottish context and that we shouldn't try, but for me, the wiser course of action is to bear in mind the distinct political landscape and the differences in the MSM, and to take advantage of the near-total autonomy that the blogosphere offers to come up with new ideas and new faces. And while having a blogger who can cross over into the MSM with such ease would be a bonus, probably it's more important to have a couple of 'go-to' bloggers that people can rely on.

But that brings me to my next point, which Stuart himself acknowledges:

Another counter-argument to my basic thesis is, of course, that plenty of prominent blogs have come and gone in the past, but the MacBlogosphere generally has survived.

And quite so. The blogosphere is constantly changing and evolving in a way that the MSM can't, as old bloggers quit and new ones take up the reins. Which is why Stuart's reflections on who might replace current bloggers, while based on a valid concern, seem a little out of place. No blogs are ever 'replaced', but they can be succeeded, in a way.

After all, if a journalist at the Scotsman were to fall under a bus tomorrow, the paper could advertise for a new staff member, and hire someone to take their place, who would of course be expected to comply with the house style and editorial guidelines as their predecessor did. If I were to fall under a bus tomorrow, J. Arthur MacNumpty would end, and if someone out there were crazy enough to tackle the same matter I do, they'd have a different perspective to mine and a different style, so even a Sunday Whip feature wouldn't look the same. That new blog wouldn't be MacNumpty, but despite inevitably being very different in look and feel, it could and would occupy the same space and perform a similar role. Not a replacement, but a successor, and it goes without saying that the fluid nature of the blogosphere makes it completely impossible to identify successors, until they actually emerge. By the way, to put it bluntly, as I have no intention of falling under a bus tomorrow or any other day, the aim is that there will neither be nor will there need to be a successor to MacNumpty at any point in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, let me just take a look at one final point:

Of course, there may be personal factors in all of this, but overall there does seem to be a trend evident. Equally, there are undoubtedly short-term factors in play - post-election fatigue and disillusionment, most obviously - but with an unprecedented period in UK politics in the last few weeks, not to mention things being teed up nicely for a tough Holyrood vote in ten months time, there does seem to be plenty for Scottish bloggers to get their teeth into.

Stuart is 100% bang on the money here. There's plenty for us to talk about, but it doesn't seem to be happening. Of course, if we don't have time to blog, we can't, and if we're too tired or pissed off to blog, we won't. Here's one thought, which is certainly the case for myself: might we still be trying to make sense of it all ourselves? The changed Westminster landscape is an entirely new beast, but I suspect that we'd have a better time of analysing it and making comments if it were Holyrood, and besides, the actual process of change was fast-moving, but lasted only a couple of days. It took less than a week to get from polling day to the establishment of the Coalition Government. It took a week and a half for Holyrood to find a Presiding Officer in 2007. Events were moving quickly, with all sorts of developments to comment on, but the sheer number of twists and turns meant that they went on for a while. For Westminster, it was all over by the Tuesday after polling day and rather than having to make snap judgements about a rapidly shifting landscape, we're now reflecting on a landscape that has already changed, and what those changes mean in the long term. Three years ago, we had no time to think, and we were all flying by the seat of our pants, waiting for the next twist. Now, we know how Westminster's going to map out and we have time to analyse and reflect on what's happening. Even the Labour Leadership Election is a long, drawn-out affair, and I suppose Parkinson's Law has kicked in: our ruminations are expanding to fill the time available, and with the Summer around the corner, I can't see that changing.

For me, the key period is September to January. The Party Conferences will be fascinating this time around; the Labour Leadership Contest will reach its conclusion; we'll have the continuing row over the timing (and then the question) of the AV referendum; the return to work of MSPs and with that, the beginning of the 'long' election campaign, as the final selections are made and candidates put their own local affairs in order. Including, I daresay, some of them taking to their keyboards. There'll be plenty of things to discuss, and plenty of people wanting to make their point. There'll of course be the Christmas lull, so it will be interesting to see, once everything is lined up, how people will pick up from that.

So Stuart's comment are perceptive and he may yet be proven right, but it's too early to say: the blogosphere is an unpredictable medium at the best of times, so even in this admittedly lean spell, I think there are still plenty of us with tricks up our sleeves.


Lallands Peat Worrier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lallands Peat Worrier said...

I'll try that again:

Also, a word on structure, or at least on some arguably crucial features of the population under discussion.

To my eye (i.e. after an ad hoc, somewhat impressionistic survey of the Scots political blogosphere) the field feels decidedly dominated by pro-Nationalist blogs and more or less unaligned, independent (if not independence) minded types. Not a problem, per se, but one of God's most gracious gifts is someone to disagree with. Honourable exceptions despite, there aren't all of the perspectives there could be. Contrary views aren't being represented in the digital sphere, hence debate is not stimulated.

Most notably, compared to the party's prevalence in Scots politics, Labour-minded Scots bloggers are now almost literally non-existent. Some of this may be attributable to the features of Labour politics. If the young are more likely to blog, then young Labour enthusiasts, eyes on party advancement, may not be keen to leave a digital trail of opinion that might lead them into a Stuart MacLellanesque reputational disaster. Hence they keep their peace, hobknob with party grandees and the Labour position goes largely unargued, largely undefended.

What we need to find is a proper, reflective, open-minded firebreathing Scottish Labourite.

Conan the Librarian™ said...

Good Luck.

Bill said...

Having been blogging now for a bit over 8 years I've seen many blogs come and go - with particular fluctuations before and after elections. We're still in the fallout period from the most recent UK elections, so there's bound to be an anti-climax.

As for the 'macblogosphere' well, I suppose technically I'm part of it, but in reality I don't think (nor do I wish to do so) of myself like this. If I'm anything I'm a 'British' blogger (because that is what I am) and no doubt some here will want to slap me in the face for saying so, but I do find 'Scottish politics' tedious and, to be frank, parochial and plain boring. Apart from a few things that happen at Holyrood I simply don't care about much of what goes on there - I'd far rather have the 'Daily Politics' at midday on a Thursday than FMQs, which simply does not interest me most of the time.

Parallel with this are things going on in my own life - I split my time between here and Spain so tend to take a lot of interest in matters Spanish and European generally (particularly involving the Eurozone), where events touch on political, social or economic matters. There's also 'tweeting', started by the same person who started the 'blogger' platform and I enjoy that medium - it's easy to hold an almost real-time to-and-fro conversation there and whilst there may be a dearth of Labour-types in the 'macblogosphere', there certainly is not in the tweeting world and I often have interesting debates with them about British, rather than parochial Scottish, matters. I do still blog in my two blogs, but much less than before and only when I can devote sufficient time (and mental energy) to putting something semi-coherent in an article.

Maybe if I lived in the Central Belt I'd think differently, but Glasgow/Edinburgh is at least as (and probably more) alien to me than is London and the south-east of England. I don't have a socialist bone in my body and in Scotland whether you're SNP, Labour or LibDem you're mostly likely at the very least slightly left of centre, the whole concept of which I find tedious in the extreme and for all these reasons I just don't 'get it' so far as the vast bulk of Scottish politics is concerned. I love Scotland, particularly the Highlands at this time of year, but am just really pleased that we have once more a semi-decent government in London that can begin to put right the mismanagement of the past 13 years, which far too many of my fellow-Scots for my liking had a part in voting into power.

Apart from all this the narcissism and naked self-promotion of too many bloggers (and not just in Scotland, although they are major factors here) is something I find
rather noisome. I blog and tweet about things that interest me and blogging and tweeting about blogging and tweeting (which is what many in Scotland seem to do pretty frequently) is of little interest to me - this comment is one of the rare occasions that I have engaged or will engage in this kind of thing.

I hope all is going for you in the big wide world beyond blogging :)

Malc said...

As ever, interesting stuff to chew over Will. I think there's plenty merit in what both you and Stuart have mentioned. For my part, I think the focus has gone somewhat - both from the Westminster-driven politics of the last few months and (generally speaking) life taking over for many of the blogosphere's more prominent names (with the probably exceptions of Jeff, Caron & Stephen!).

So maybe we are in flux a little, but we're on the brink of something big... so hopefully we'll stick with it.

Will said...

Thanks for the feedback so far, folks - keep it coming!

I think LPW has hit the nail on the head by flagging up the dearth of Scottish Labour bloggers, and the potential career development implications that might follow for a blogging Labour activist.

Having said that, I think the issue there goes beyond the MacLellan incident. In fact, I wonder if, instead of tweeting, he had chosen to make more use of his blog, he wouldn't have produced the frivolous outbursts that got him into so much trouble as he would have put more time and effort into a full post than is required in a 140-character zing.

For me, the root cause of this comes with the hostility shown at the top. When you have the likes of Iain Gray almost spitting the word 'bloggers' at Conference, there's inevitably going to be a mindset that takes over, which says that blogging is a bad thing. Of course, we know better, but if they're constantly told by the people who are in charge that blogging and bloggers are bad, then that's going to put them off from the get go. Figures in the wider UK Labour party have at least tried to engage with the wider medium but I suspect that the Scottish Labour view that anything which SNP members think is good must automatically be bad has closed off a number of online opportunities to them.

And if that's the mindset they're employing then I share Conan's scepticism that they'll ever be able to capitalise on those opportunities!

Malc, you've said it more succinctly than I have, there has been a loss of focus, but like you, I'm hopeful that it can be regained soon enough.

And, Bill, in many ways, your approach highlights why I use the word 'Westminster-centric' instead of 'English' or 'UK' - you're not plugged into that Scottish political scene and it seems very remote to you. Perhaps, for consistency, I might be wiser using 'Holyrood-centric' for the 'Scottish' blogosphere?

But personally, I enjoy the navel-gazing - it takes me back to the various Uni courses I took based on Applied Linguistics. Frustrating though it may be, I think there's something fascinating about the way we all communicate online and the virtual speech community that has developed: it's worth the occasional musing. Certainly the online world is generally more fun than the real life counterpart, in which my office computer very nearly ended up in a skip this afternoon. Hence the holiday... :)

McChatterer said...

A lot of potential bloggers will have been scared off by the media attention that was focused on the likes of universality of cheese and wardog. Also, a lot of people work in the public sector in Scotland, and few of them will want their political views to be publicly known, so the pool of potential bloggers is smaller than you might expect.

Anyway, Scotland's a small country, you are more likely to bump into people in the street that you just slagged off ten minutes ago. There's little culture of shock jocks here.

The media is different too, almost entirely Labour-based. Most bloggers seem to have been pro-independence. But the SNP have seemed quiet lately, and bloggers may reflect that.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks for that Will. I can't really disagree with the basic thrust of your post, but in the final analysis I'm still a bit more sceptical than yourself, although as I alluded in my own effort I enjoy neither your own long term perspective nor your breadth of knowledge of the medium.

However, as regards your main counter-points I should perhaps add a couple of nuances to what you say.

First, as regards the Guido/Iain Dale point, I wasn't so much lamenting the lack of a McGuido and a McDale so much as the lack of really prominent bloggers per se, ie basically one or two people who might enjoy some sort of public profile, however obscure they might be in the grand scheme of things. And that needn't be merely because such a person could move seamlessly between the blogosphere and the MSM, but clearly such a route to greater prominence is the most obvious one.

Of course, the nearest thing to a McDale is probably Jeff - in the last couple of years at least - but I don't think his experience with the MSM has been an entirely happy one, the limited extent to which they've sought his views seem to have related to blogging issues rather than wider politics, and in any case I don't think he's been particularly keen to court a high profile - by appearing on TV, for example - although I'm perhaps straying on to second-guessing him!!

As regards replacing or emulating the 'veteran' or retiring bloggers, I wholly agree that it's neither possible nor desirable to precisely replicate other blogs and bloggers, but my point was, I think, more about the fact that there seems to be little sign of new 'big names' coming through. Since I became familiar with the blogosphere most of the more high-profile bloggers that I specifically named have either given up, threatened to give up or at the very least have severely curtailed their activities or become very stop-start. And although someone else replicating them precisely would be undesirable, are there other bloggers who look likely to replace them in terms of profile and following?

Of course, my first point is to a large extent linked to the second - there is no really high-profile blogger coming through, and the tier below is fizzling out with few coming through to take their place. And, on a related point, perhaps there are fewer people following blogs these days, which also means that the newer blogs enjoy less of an impetus towards the necessary critical mass.

Bill, as a devolution-sceptic to some extent I can identify with what you say about Scottish politics.

However, these days I find myself more interested in Holyrood politics. First, the issues I'm more interested in are devolved. Second, I suppose there's a sense that it's better to be a small fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond! Third, I suppose Holyrood just seems that much closer than Westminster, which I would have to reluctantly concede is one rationale for devolution!

Stuart Winton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allan said...

I actually think it might be an asset that we have a wide and varied collective in the McBlogosphere, obviously this means that there's no go-to person for the Meeja, but is that a bad thing?

I suspect (as will the case be for myself) that the McBlogosphere will come out of its malaise at the end of the summer holiday's, just before the conference season. Centainly I have been concentrating a lot more on my sports blog "Fan With A Laptop" rather than "Dispatches...".

Interesting synopsis of the McBlogosphere.

Lallands Peat Worrier said...

One final rather unscientific thought on how fewer posts seems to choke off inter-site visitor traffic. It is definitely noticeable that when certain of the sites which link to me are more active, more folk scuttle sideways to mine from them. Correlatively, when they're less active, the general average decreases. No doubt the effect is general and somewhat cumulative.