Erik Ringmar, a good friend of mine from the LSE, has written what, to my knowledge is a double first with his book, A Blogger’s Manifesto. It is the first academic study of blogs and it is the first book about blogging that isn’t about how public relations people should take advantage of blogging, how you can make money from your blog or presents a collection of articles from blogs.
For me, A Blogger’s Manifesto has three themes; one, that saying that ‘blogging is good for free speech’ only fits in with one of the three interpretations of freedom of speech; secondly, that the implications of blogging range far beyond the (somewhat self-important) political blog; and that blogging can make our world better, but that it requires people to be less sensitive and a bit more in touch with reality.
Erik has, unfortunately, experience of being ‘dooced’. The story is recounted on Wikipedia and The Guardian, but I would like to say again that I think George Phillip and Howard Davies massively over-reacted, damaged the LSE’s reputation and cost its students a good lecturer and a good teacher. It colours his interpretations, but not unjustifiably so. As I have said in the past, freedom of speech, if it means anything, means having to hear things you don’t want to hear. It also means that other people have to hear what you don’t want them to hear.
1. Three promises
Erik very succinctly describes three variations on free speech justification; the republican rights of man, the liberal against restriction of freedom and the radical that emphasises access to information as much as freedom of speech. The great improvement that blogging brings is not that anybody come say what they want, but that anyone has access to unmediated information if they want it; unmediated by politicians, companies, editors or anyone else. It requires an educated citizenry, but it offers the chance for people to find about what matters to them, be it transport policy or embroidery. It is a fascinating way of looking at free speech and implicitly asks what anyone who restricts access to information and the internet has to hide.
2. Blogging beyond politics
The political bloggers tend, I think, to overstate their own importance. We are on the verge of unseating the ‘dead-tree press’ and heralding a new era of political engagement. We are not there yet, and the changes will most likely occur from the bottom-up rather than by a decapitation of existing filters.
The modal average blogger is, it would appear, a teenaged girl and people blog about everything – literally, everything. Whatever it is that someone finds interesting, someone will be blogging about it. One of the things people do most often is work and so it is not surprising that work comes up a lot in peoples’ blogs, whether it be Petite Anglaise, Dooce or, indeed, Erik Ringmar. The way companies react tell us a lot about them; they seek criticism in general and blogs in particular as a threat to be jumped on. The case of the LSE is instructive. I did my undergraduate degree at LSE and had a great time. I would recommend the LSE to anyone. That does not mean it is perfect; there are areas where it could improve. Erik highlighted some of them; the response to his speech was instructive; the fact that someone would give a warts-and-all representation of the LSE made the good more believable. Consumers, as students are increasingly treated, can see through PR but find honesty appealing. This applies to all consumers, broadly defined.
3. Hear my voice
There are risks associated to blogging. It gives a platform to anyone, not just people we are willing to be heard. Not only does this allow this allow the deeply unpleasant to express themselves, it means that the vulnerable can be targeted. The answer to both problems is education. In the case of the vulnerable, it is education about the risks of the internet and, given that people tend to ignore advice, how to remain as safe as possible. In the case of the deeply unpleasant, the most effective countervailing force is an educated citizenry with the ability to critique information presented as fact; these are skills that should be developed in school but can be developed later.
If there is more information out there, it is more likely to concern any given person or organisation; this seems to explain the paranoia among some companies and the raft of PR companies offering services for blogging and other social media. The message that comes through for me from Erik’s book is that blogging is not ‘there’… yet. It is growing and finding its voices – and it’s voices in the plural, not voice. The utilitarian justification for free speech that Mill outlines in On Liberty stands and organisations would do well to foster constructive criticism. They have much to gain.
Erik has an engaging style of writing and his breadth of knowledge and natural inquisitiveness, coupled with some sour personal experiences and the resultant support, make it a book that starts firing t. I thoroughly recommend that anyone interested in anything more than the superficie of blogging read this book. It is available for free download on Erik’s website and is published by Anthem Press and is available on Amazon.
PS – I declare a relevant interest here, as I sent information to the author for the book and was firmly ‘on his side’ during the disagreement at LSE.