Sunday, November 20, 2005

Changing Your Mind

Neil Harding, the blogger formerly known as "the only blogger to be pro-ID cards", has now officially changed his mind. He must be quite relieved to get that weight from off his back! Reading the comments on the post, however, disappointed me a bit more. Despite the various messages of congratulation, and offers of a pint, one comment expressed surprise by saying "no-one changes their mind on the Internet!" This may well be true (although Jarndyce successfully convinced my co-blogger Richard of an alternative mode of electoral reform in May), but if the British blogosphere is going to be anything other than a cacophany of shouting and noise, then it can't be.

The mainstream media have been giving blogs a fair amount of attention recently - no doubt in part because of the recent publication of Tim Worstall's anthology of British blogging this year. Yet the one angle that seems to be missed by much of the rest of the blogging world is that there are only certain blogging voices that the media are interested in publicising. In particular, the pro-war left and the libertarian right - in short, the two semi-significant groupings in British politics that aren't really represented either in the media or the political parties. And whilst they often throw up interesting angles on issues that really aren't considered (and, indeed, have posts sufficiently regularly to justify a regular look), the two leading blogs of this variety - Samizdata and Harry's Place - often just become incredibly dogmatic. Stories that they agree or disagree with are critiqued on the same basis again and again. There's only so long you can hear that the Stop the War coalition or lower taxes are evil without getting bored.

The other type of blog that gets publicity is the pithy blog - that contains posts with a paragraph or two that a newspaper can fit into a side column, usually making some fantastical claim that this represents what the "blogosphere is saying" on a given issue. In fact, it's much more like a Jeremy Vine phone-in on Radio 2, where you get a load of cranks talking extremist nonsense - but equal measures of extremism from each side. Again, however, it's part of the "shout the loudest" syndrome. Using a swear word or two, or otherwise insulting opponents, doesn't get us much further in actually progressing the debate. And isn't it the lack of debate that's normally cited as the problem with political participation?

If the blogosphere really wants to be seen as the "new commentariat", I think the prominent bloggers are probably going to have to be a little less happy just to get face time. I can't blame them - if I had any of the national newspapers interested in what I was writing, I'd be absolutely delighted. Yet bloggers get treated almost like an embarrassing little brother by the big media. They're there, they've got something interesting to say, but to stop them yapping at our ankles we'll just give them a little bit of praise here and there. I know I've argued this before, but the niche for the blogosphere in Britain isn't ideological - it's in raising the quality of debate. I've learnt far more about ID cards, for example, from reading blogs on the issue than on any reading of the national newspapers. That is where Britbloggers come into their own - filling in the gaps, continuing the debate, forcing people to engage with each other. We want more Neil Hardings. Not because he's come round to my point of view, but because he's taken on an argument, extended it heavily, and then been big enough to admit he was wrong. If it had happened the other way round, I'd have been pleased, too. The media and the political parties are causing Britain enough problems as it is through giving us one line and stifling debate where possible. Bloggers shouldn't let dogma allow it to happen to them.