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You Still Can’t Get There From Here


It’s a long way from 4 Times Square, the shiny skyscraper that’s home of The New Yorker, Vogue and other glossy magazines to the San Jose Hyatt, the low-rise hotel that was the temporary home of this year’s BlogHer, a gathering of some 700 women, most of whom wouldn’t know (or care) about the difference between a Blahnik and a Louboutin. An entire country – in more ways than one – lies between the two places.
Reading a (justifiably) much-maligned piece by Nick Lemann in last week’s New Yorker, I kept thinking about the gathering in San Jose. Why? Well, mostly because of the tech guys who braved the conference, returned home and spent a fair amount of bandwidth looking down their noses at what happened. And they used the same dismissive tone as Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, a well-award writer and solid political journalist, took in his piece about “citizen journalism.”
Not enough people at BlogHer talked about technology and when they did it was rudimentary, say the Big Boy Bloggers. The conference was was really…uh, personal. My favorite came from Microsoft’s former on-line voice, Robert Scoble. In a long, rambling post Scoble admitted that well, he kind of had a good time and boy those big (non-tech) corporations really seemed to know how to market to women! Lemann in his piece “Amateur Hour” talked about how no important national reporting was getting done on-line. It’s small beer, he said, comparing a group of post – most written by women, oddly enough – to church newsletters. It’s not important, he says, again and again.
Listen carefully. In both cases – Lemann and his antithesis, the Geeks – you’ll hear the complacent sound of the insider explaining why his clubhouse can’t possible admit just anyone who applies. This isn’t anything new, particularly with Lemann. As for geeky men and women…well, you don’t need me to weigh in on that one.
Now, Lemann deserves being taken to task for handing in a poorly-researched and sloppily reported piece. Any story about on-line technology that quotes from 2003 is off to a bad, bad start. And yes, some of what goes on at BlogHer (like lots of other conferences) is annoying and trivial but it’s not a conference about technology and, yeah, some of that “feel-good sister” stuff drives me nuts, too.
But – with a few notable exceptions, the best by Rebecca MacKinnon – the denunciations that are flying back and forth in all cases here just aren’t on target.
To start with, I’d like everyone to stop using the word “blogging” when they talk about all forms of writing on-line. Microsoft doesn’t tell you that its Word program is only for writing letters does it? So why must a “blog” by definition be something related to the gathering and processing of information with an aim toward professional-like reporting and writing? Some sites built on blogging software are nothing more than an improvement on the “cc” line on an email. Others are political advocacy sites. Some, like Spot=on., are media businesses, run for profit.
This is why I talk so often about “stand alone journalism.” Placing the emphasis on a specific piece of software, as the Geeks like to do, means we writers would bog down in small-minded thinking about products and features. Putting technology first also lumps everything happening on-line in the same category, a classification dictated by the way in which the information is delivered. Both are unfair and both arguments have, sad to say, found supporters with people who should know better; many media-savvy writers use the word “blog” to mean “I’m important again – look at my mastery of this new technology.” One result? Big Media writers like Lemann have been guided by very myopic views of how technology is changing the business. Tech Geeks hew to very narrow ideas about how their miracle products should be used and for much of the past few years they’ve been calling the shots. That’s a mistake. There is a large middle ground here; much of it unexplored.
When we talk about changes in the media business, we’re not really talking about “blogging.” The changes in the Big Media universe are changes being wrought by the Internet; the network that now connects almost all of us that allows us to hear the poorly served when they complain which they have more of a reason to do – because they’re poorly served. The ‘net is relentless and ruthless in its ability to foment change and to keep fomenting change upon the changes it’s already created. BlogHer and the rise of the “citizen journalist” are examples of the broadening use of the Internet for a variety of purposes and their cumulative effect on the network is to make established authorities less important. Many of those established authorities – be they tech geeks or Columbia professors – are shocked to find out that they do not matter. They’re coping with it in different ways by each doing what they’ve always done without much regard for how things are changing. Tech folks are defensively sticking to their code; Big Media boys are huddling in the offices of their glossy magazines.
The large gathering of “Mommy Bloggers” is just one more example of just how poorly served women are by our society as a whole. Like tech bloggers who have sprung up to serve the Geeks of Silicon Valley, or the political bloggers who have risen up to grind their partisan axes, these women have been ignored and they’re frustrated. Their work – raising children – is trivialized; their sensibility (what about the children?) mocked and their achievements (“I’m a writer,” says Grace Davis) are patronized. There are plenty of audiences like this out there – some like Debbie Galant’s Baristanet are gathered around cush suburbs; some like Global Voices, have risen up to serve a gap in international reporting. Others are more nefarious: If you don’t think Al Queada is a web-based business and communications network, you should reconsider. Treating them all the same because they’re all on the Internet is as silly as saying anyone who sits in front of a keyboard for more than 20 minutes a day is a secretary. It’s just not true anymore. And it never will be again.
And that’s a New Yorker story – a good one. Too bad Nick Lemann’ll never read it. It’s being written on the web.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 4:03 PM | Permalink

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