Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Day, Another Post


Blogging for Civil Society

On the day that I am already late for this article on blogging, a friend from university days - and a powerhouse in the South African blogosphere - invites me to blog on his site. The first useful thing I find on the site is that ‘blogosphere’ is a *really* detested word. The second thing I learn – mostly because I’m looking for it - is that regular posting, fresh ideas and accuracy are minimum requirements for a successful blog.

These seem contradictory in many respects – at least they do to me as I consider whether or not I have the self-discipline, breadth of knowledge, and, quite frankly, enough to say to maintain a thoughtful, frequently-posted and accurate blog.

Of course whether or not I feel I can handle the three minimum requirements is hardly relevant. Many, many people can and do. The emergence of blogging as a force in the media is pretty mind-blowing. Wikipedia cites Technorati as indexing 94 million blogs. Not all of the 94 million are likely to have much of a readership, nor much of an influence. But as the site notes, with that many ‘some of them have to be good’.

Blogging – you’d think - has significant potential in the civil society sector. We should at least have something to say. Most civil society organisations are formed around a principle, a cause or sets of specialist, socially useful knowledge - that’s one of the minimum requirements for blogs. Writing skills and time? – Well surely we can buy that in.

But there’s not been too much activity on that front in South Africa. The popular blogs in SA focus around technology, sports, and media navel-gazing - civil society issues are touched tangentially by the well-known bloggers but rarely systematically by staffers in the sector.

Perhaps that’s because many in civil society have access to traditional media, newspapers and broadcast media, and many in the sector are used as experts by the media. So you may ask, why go to the effort of maintaining your own media outlet when the traditional media are happy to pass your message on?

But ‘Citizen Journalism’ – the production of news and opinion outside of the traditional media - is becoming more and more important. Increasingly, stories are being broken by non-traditional journalists, not least because there are a lot more ‘non-journalists’ around. Blogs are moving on from text-based personal opinions to real-time reporting on events, often with photos and increasingly with videos (new words to learn: photoblog, vlog (videoblog) and podcasting (audio blogs)).

Much of this increasing importance is due to the enabling technologies offered by burgeoning social networking tools, which takes the technical burden away from the writer. The initial difficulty of setting up a blog probably accounts for why there are so many technology-oriented blogs – you used to have to be interested in technology to be able to set one up. Now, though, pretty much all of that is handled by a myriad of service providers or bundled into software that runs most websites.

So without technology or capital barriers to entry, the question increasingly comes down to quality. Many traditional media – frightened by the prospect of losing online advertising revenue – have railed against the lack of professionalism and restrictions on blogs. Recent events around defamatory blog postings on South Africa about sport celebrities’ seem to have underlined this point.

There have been a few attempts to look at a kind of a ‘Code of Conduct’ for bloggers. Well known technology writer Tim O’Reilly proposed this earlier this year – referring primarily to basic civility norms on blogs.

Locally, some controversy occurred at the Digital Citizen Indaba last year at the proposed introduction of an African Code of Conduct. Aimed at trying to create a ‘framework of credibility that will enable citizen journalists using blogs to be taken more seriously by the media when they report on blogged news’, it was perceived as a neo-colonial attempt at control.

But I reckon this is barking up the wrong tree anyway. Credibility – and the long-term readership and influence that really is the only currency that blogs provide – come from the individual or institution standing behind the writing. An anonymous blogger making up salacious stories about sports stars may get his/her 15 minutes of fame (as well as a whole lot more time in court), but in terms of *really* challenging traditional media in setting the agenda of public discourse - well I suspect that comes from institutions and people that have a life and a reputation outside of the blogosphere (whoops, there’s that word again!).

NGOs have spent years and resources building that reputation and credibility. Let’s not lose the opportunity of trading on that and making the sector a force to be reckoned with in new media.

- Matthew de Gale, ICT Services Manager, SANGONeT.