Sunday, March 19, 2006

Comment Is Free

...but only if you're famous, or write for the Guardian already. That seems to be the tone of the new giant blog launched this week, at any rate. Rather like the Huffington Post, it is predicated more on the basis that people will read big names more willingly than unknown ranters and ravers, often posting behind pseudonyms.

That's not a stupid guess, of course. People will have heard of Gary Younge or Mike Marqusee, but not of Ken Owen. And, indeed, the inclusion of those two writers mean that I will turn my attention to Comment is Free on a fairly regular basis. It's undoubtedly a strong assemblage of writers.

I can't help but feel that it loses something from the real essence of blogging though; why it is so much fun, and why we are prepared to spend so much time writing. Justin McKeating, of Chicken Yoghurt fame (and another excellent writer), has also been invited to Comment Is Free. But the whole style of the blog, to me, is wrong.

The Britblog Roundup has shown that there is some excellent writing spinning about in the blogosphere - on all subjects, and in a variety of different forms, too. But the spin-off book, Blogged, to me seemed a little soulless compared with the vitality of blogging online. Why? Because it lost the personal touch that you get when you read a blog for a while. Yes, the quality of writing is important. Blogs, however, are like a good sitcom. You won't watch them if they aren't funny; but the best become funnier as they develop a continuity to their stories. The personal voice and the immediacy of the writing on a blog is what sets it apart from other modes of writing.

That doesn't mean a blog should be a solo endeavour - far from it. Indeed, a small group blog can have an energy about it that one man blogging alone would find very difficult to emulate. If a blog gets too big, though, it becomes sterile. I can't help but feel that the sporadic nature of postings on The Sharpener is a result of a project that became too broadly conceived, and focused a lot more on attempting to attract "quality writing" rather than having a sense of mission. Keeping a personal blog updated is more fun.

The same principle applies to Comment Is Free. In having so many contributors, there is no doubt that it will contain many excellent pieces of writing well worth reading. But as something to visit frequently, it will prove a lot more unsatisfying than other blogs. The sense of debate will be lost; moreover, postings will most likely be so frequent that many of the best posts get 'buried'. And again, it will seem more like a showcase of celebrity writing rather than developing a sense of mission, or a sense of reading a person's thoughts.

Therein lies the final problem I have with the project. Blogging, surely, should be about spreading ideas and information, rather than trying to attract attention through encouraging big names to adopt a bastardised version of the blogging format. It's nice to see that the Guardian realises the potential of blogs - but they seem, inescapibly, to be treating it as a way of looking trendy without trying something new.