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What Happens When Blogs Go Mainstream?

Will blogs take on all the bad habits of the mainstream media or will it help the media progress just a bit further toward independence of thought?
 
 
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Six years ago I wrote a column titled "Blog Anxiety," which was all about how bloggers make me nervous and jealous with their lightning-fast news cycles. I bemoaned my inability to commit words to public record without waiting for editorial oversight and without waiting for publication day (inevitably several days if not weeks after I had written those words).

I talked about how bloggers can cite sources they've talked to informally and how they seem blissfully unburdened by concerns about injecting a personal perspective into their writing. That was before It All Changed. And by "It All Changed," I don't just mean that I became a blogger, which I did. More profoundly, I mean that blogs themselves have changed.

They are not the subterranean upstart media without rules anymore. I'm certainly not the first person to observe that blogs are fast becoming indistinguishable from mainstream media, and indeed places like the New York Times and the Washington Post have blogs that are often more newsy than the papers themselves. This blurring between formerly mainstream media and formerly alternative media means that the upstarts are having to follow old-school rules.

While I can't speak for all bloggers, I prefer not to publish anything on my blog that hasn't been edited. I don't want readers to see my spelling errors and craptastic leaps in logic, thank you very much (of course you'll still see many, but not as many as you would if there were no edits). I also spend a fair amount of time on the phone or on e-mail interviewing sources for my posts, as well as doing research. And I won't publish anything that I think will get me sued, is libelous, or is just plain wrong, even if it's funny. What I'm saying is that my blog is not exactly the unedited, stream-of-consciousness outpourings of a person in pajamas. Well, OK, I am often in pajamas.

Recently I was reading a conversation thread on Metafilter, one of my favorite still-subterranean Web sites for smart talk and slagging. Somebody mentioned my science fiction blog io9.com, then snarked at me for starting a blog when I was on record saying that blogs freak me out. An unedited discussion full of spiky banter and maniacal analysis followed -- exactly the kind of conversation I once associated with all blogs. People were nastier than they would have been if writing for a mainstream publication, but the cool ideas-to-noise ratio was nevertheless far higher than you'd ever get in USA Today or CNN.

And this brings me to what scares me about blogs now. I worry that instead of taking the Metafilter ethos mainstream, many blogs are leaving it behind. That's not because we have editors or talk to sources -- I'm happy to see bloggers doing that. It's because our audiences are starting to be as big as those of the mainstream media, and the mainstream media have taught us to be afraid of saying what we really think to those audiences. They've taught us that we should tiptoe around hot-button issues like climate change and sex and delay publishing stories that might upset the government until such a time as the government is comfortable with those stories.

This is the source of my blog anxiety in 2008. Will blogs take on all the bad habits of the mainstream media, self-censoring when we should be publishing? Or will bloggers help the media progress just a little bit further toward independence of thought and bravery in publication?

It's still too early to tell. Even the most mainstream blogs don't suffer the same pressures that mainstream publications like the New York Times do. Blogs don't have the 100-year histories of many newspapers and magazines -- they don't have the huge staffs and long, elaborate relationships with corporations and governments and famous, influential people. And I am glad we don't have that history. I hope we can make our own, new history and shake up the way news is made and culture is analyzed. And then, in 30 years, I hope a new medium will come along and kick our asses too.

Annalee Newitz ( annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who spends all day and all night blogging and editing at io9.com. You think she's kidding about that, but she isn't.

 
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