Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Much Ado About Blogs

The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow. ~Bill Gates

There are 5,000 great people for every jerk on Usenet. But that still is a lot of jerks. Proceed with caution and eyes wide open. ~Don Rittner

Because people that I know are aware that I have a couple of blogs, they are often anxious to pass along news relating to the blogosphere. Personally, I would rather they would pass along comments about my blogs, but that would require that they actually read the damn things, a sacrifice few seem willing to make. However, if I continue in that vein, I'm going to start to cry, and I need to maintain my persona of an urbane, sometimes witty, sophisticated author (no smart remarks, now), so I'll move one.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the other day one of my non-readers stopped me as I was leaving work, risking serious injury by interposing himself between me and the door. He was moved to tell me that he had read in USA Today, I think it was, that a blogger had been sued for libel and lost, to which my reply was, essentially, “And what was news about this?”

Now, I didn't mean to get snarky – well, yes, I did; standing between me and the door at quitting time is on a par with getting between a pit bull and a bone – but, I am continually amazed at the attitude people and the mainstream media have toward blogs. Yes, there are 14 bazillion blogs, well, maybe 100 million, depending on whether you include all the MySpace-type pages out there. But, an immense percentage of these blogs are not even maintained. Another huge percentage are personal diaries; why anyone would want their personal diary open to the view of any weirdo in the world is one of the mysteries of modern times, but many do.

Another large number of blogs are nothing more than spam that masquerades as a blog. Most of these are selling –what else – pornography, still the easiest way to make a buck on the Internet. There are some blogs, though, that sell legitimate things, including my favorite, original artworks. What's funny is that just a few years ago, these artists simply would have created a personal web page to do precisely the same thing.

In fact, not that long ago, most people who wanted to express an opinion, share a hobby, or offer information did so by creating a web site, often utilizing the free site and tools provided by their ISP. But, even with the tools available, making a good web site takes time, updating it is not as easy as it is with a blog, maintaining links to archival material takes more effort, and there is not built-in comments system, although some of the free web site providers offer web forum services in the package.

The bottom line is that a blog is easier than doing web pages. As a result, all these millions of folks are unburdening their souls. Some of them are doing this unwisely. While anyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, they are not entitled to a) plagiarize the work of others, b) tell lies claimed as facts about people, and c) make disparaging comments about their employers.

Plagiarism is an obvious no-no, yet, if anything, it's become disgustingly common, and not just among bloggers. Communications Week magazine just fired one of their reporters over using unattributed material verbatim. Bloggers are supposed be particularly prone to stealing stuff, but there have been a goodly number of accusations of mainstream media stealing blog material; apparently journalists figure bloggers never read the news.

Libel is libel. Before blogs, web sites were sued successfully for publishing scurrilous statements that had no basis in fact. Sometimes the statements didn't have to be that scurrilous, just wrong enough to be construed as harmful. Either way, you say something about someone, you had better be able to back it up or demonstrate that you were being satirical or sarcastic. Making libelous statements in cyberspace doesn't render the source immune from consequences.

Griping about employers is one of the great universal pastimes. If there was a perfect place to work, you would still find someone there who was crabby about something. That's fine. What's not fine is posting your gripe for the world to see. Most companies have a statement in the employee manual or in one of the dozens of documents one signs when hired that say something about the employee making public statements about the company. Usually, what they say is, “Don't”, although not in so many words. Most people wouldn't write a letter to the editor of the local paper complaining about the company dress code, yet they think it's fine to put similar comments in a blog potentially visible to millions of people.

Of course, there are people who post entries about committing illegal acts who seem surprised to be subsequently arrested, so nothing that people post should surprise us.

Network World magazine just fired one of their columnists, a consultant who, in his blog, had been critical of the periodical. What brought matters to a head was an apparently particularly scathing commentary about a special issue of the magazine. Network World finally decided that they paying someone to criticize their publication was a bit silly, so they freed the columnist from the burden of receiving paychecks from them.

But the most amazing thing is the attitude that the media has toward blogs. It is similar to my attitude toward a snake. I'm both fascinated and repelled at the same. time. So it is with the mainstream media. If one is to believe them, blogs are having this immense impact on society, particularly in politics. We haven't seen a story like this yet, but my guess is that, come November, at least one election loss will be attributed to a blog or blogs. Ridiculous. Groundswell movements came about before blogs and will come after blogs have been forgotten and replaced by The Next Big Thing.

Ironically, many of these analyses of the power of the blog will appear in journalists' blogs. It seems that every publication and media outlet has all of their writers churning out blogs. Most of these are little more than link-of-the-day pieces, although a few seem to be able to crank out a couple of good items a week in addition to their regular work. Some actually use the blog to float ideas that they might later develop into a more in-depth article. So, even as they gripe about the so-called influence of blogs, the mainstream media gang embraces them.

I don't know what will come along to supplant blogs as The Big Thing, but something will. When it does, you can rest assured that people in general and the media in particular will make an inordinate fuss about it. No sooner will it be big than someone will find out ways to use it for purposes that are immoral, illegal, and/or fattening.

That's just the way the world works.

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