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Regular readers will know that I like to crib posts from Alek Tarkowski, a Polish blogger with a keen mind and a low tolerance for blather. On July 8th, Alek wrote the following post, which captures all of my frustration at the data-free manifestos that seem to regularly crop up in our corner of the Internet, written by people who have an almost Aristotelian disdain for empirical evidence. My translation, right or wrong:
Dr. Elwyn Jenkins, creator of Microdoc News, claims that the blogosphere has become a sixth estate, on a par with 1. political parties, 2. unions, 3. corporations, 4. mass media and 5. NGOs. I have to say it's been a long time since I came across such a naively utopian, optimistic, aggravating opinion . Jenkins draws on James F. Moore's idea of a Second Superpower, according to which people connected online form a powerful entity whose strength is a function of their mutual ties.
"the blogosphere is the sixth estate that keeps a check on and can criticize the other five estates. In fact, one of the reasons I believe why mass media publishers are so hostile to journlists taking part in blogging is that through blogging journalists have freedom to criticize mass media -- the hand that feeds them. "
I have to admit that this point about journalists isn't too revelatory; big media commonly look askance at jounalists who depart from the publication's official line in any way, and keeping a blog is just another way of doing that. A more appropriate candidate for a sixth estate, one that watches the remaining five, would be the global network of social movements, which are a different beast than NGOs (such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International etc.).
The emerging sixth estate is worldwide and at present has about 3 million people participating. The sixth estate has power to modify core content in search engines, influence formation of opinion, publicize the plight of individuals, and be critical of governmental and other power centers. While one blogger can be closed down, it would be indeed difficult to close down the blogosphere. And because of the way the ecosystem works, if a single blogger was closed down, the blogosphere would take up the story, particularly if the action was taken by a government to the detriment of an individual.
In my opinion, the above quote is one great accumulation of stupidity, with the unexplained "3 million bloggers" just the tip of the iceberg. The powers of a sixth estate, as described by Jenkins, do not suggest that the blogosphere could be a significant player on the global scale. But first and foremost, the blogosphere itself is a fictional concept with no basis in reality. I finally understand why we have a need for blog definitions, why people keep arguing over whether blogs in forward (not reverse) chronological order are still blogs, and so on. These discussions help delineate the borders of the blogosphere, which is the justification for any vision of this social/media mirage. In my mind, the blogosphere - if there is such a thing - is a region rather than a community, a fragmnent of the net where small and tiny networks of weblogs coexist. Neither the blogosphere, or even any meaningful subset of it, ever acts collectively, so how can we talk about a blogosphere? The way I see it, the blogosphere (in the best case) is a creative environment, a source of more or less interesting texts, frequently commentaries on texts published by media in the "fourth estate", as well as a source of ideas and information for those media to draw on.
Jenkins's text recalls a parade of earlier Utopian and individualistic visions of the Internet. The blogosphere as a sixth estate is nothing more than yet another independent cyberspace: just like Barlow's cyberspace, it too can route around censorship. And at the same time as blogs give individuals more power, the blogosphere draws strength from individuals:
The blogging econsystem is attuned to listed to individuals - real individuals. [...] As the sixth estate, the blogosphere provides a medium within which individuals and bloggers collectively can be critical of economic powers, governmental agencies and mass media.
All of this is true to some extent, we've heard it said many times about the Internet, but there's nothing here specific to the blogosphere.
To sum up, I have to say that theories like Dr. Jenkins's give me a rash, and make me grind my teeth down to flat stumps. The Blogosphere, as an online circuit of ideas, sometimes brings forth and disseminates wonderfully ingenious ideas. At other times, it seems to be its own little world, completely cut off from reality, in which odd or just plain stupid ideas can take on a life of their own, and find an (unwarranted) fame. If Dr. Jenkins were to stick his nose out of his own blogosphere, maybe he could find a better candidate for a sixth world world power.
Finally, as an aside, only on the Internet will you find a doctor annotating his mention of the concept of a Fourth Estate with a quote from the "The Student Newspaper of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay "
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brevity is for the weak
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maciej @ ceglowski.com
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