Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Dumbing-up: Why Blog? (Part 3)

"Now we are living in the age of comics as air" observed legendary manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka on dicovering that he had suddenly acquired thousands of new colleagues. That weblogs now share this quality of atmospheric abundance is suggested by the term coined to describe them collectively - blogosphere.

There's a pattern here surely? Once established, creative media find they must persist over time as fragile ecologies in constant danger of being overgrown by the cheap, the formulaic and the opportunistic. Almost everyone has heard about the process of dumbing down said to afflict the traditional media. In the case of blogs though, you could argue that this essential cheapness and dumbness was there from the start. There are plenty of early-adopters and there are a few genuine innovators in the blogosphere, but no Masters of unblemished reputation that the rest must follow.

Charles Darwin's achievement was to show how you could get from the very dumb to the very clever without the intervention of an outside intelligence. So, when the selection model is Darwinian, the prevalence of losers might actually be a sign that things are working properly. (After all we all owe our health and good looks today to the selfless sacrifice of all those sick, ugly people who didn't quite get to be our ancestors!)

On the other hand, when you have a rational, gatekeeper mind or a committee of such minds deciding what we all get to see, hear and read, then a surge of stupidity is indeed a major cause for concern. Minds alone or linked up in committee rarely evince the peculiar selective qualities of truly networked intelligence.

Does this mean that none of us need worry if our blogs are crap? Sort of. The Internet has a number of acknowledged weaknesses as a neural network capable of actively filtering out the dross based on the record of user choices and behaviours. (Bad links don't self-destruct for example.)

Anyway, another snag with Darwinian design, as biologists have been at pains to point out since The Origin of the Species was first published, is that with natural selection you don't necessarily get the best solution, just one that works - one that meets the current selection criteria. To get to the ideal solution you might have to clamber down off your own fitness peak in order to ascend another one nearby - something which Nature at least, finds almost impossible to do.

In my earlier posting I commented on the complexities of blog-sociology, observing that "In blogs, rather like all creative endeavours, some postings are like lonesome particles while a select few sing like vibrating strings". While the so-called new media remain an odd hybrid between the old and the new, between quantity and quality, between human and robot, and between Darwin and Marx, the blogosphere will function as a meritocracy that self-selects using sometimes conflicting criteria. And as such it will remain a place where the unconventional has a better chance of clearing the bar than in the traditional gene pool or marketplace. This is no bad thing.

Meanwhile, it looks like all media are being retro-fitted to the new expressive, conversational model. Blogging will no longer appear so incongruously idiosyncratic and vain once these modifications have been completed. In October 2004 Wired published a fascinating article entitled The Long Tail, in which Chris Anderson suggested that "the future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream." Essentially he argues that up until now taste has been an artefact of the "poor demand-supply matching" of hit-driven economics". Not any more however.

If you want to understand the potential importance of the blogger in a reformed media space where the power of the tyrrannical Trinity of scarcity, geography and the lowest common denominator has been significantly diluted, consider the sadly forshortened career of John Peel. Not a blogger per se, but a man whose daily choices accurately reflected the power of a well-situated, highly-opinionated yet trusted commentator to help thousands to negotiate their own personal tastes in an environment that is inherently overloaded with diversity.

No comments: