Slashdot Newton

Norway’s supreme court Thursday decided [in Norw.] against a man who had published links to mp3 files. On Friday the story made it to Slashdot, where it immediately sparked a lively debate. Starting on top, I browsed my way through threads and comments, getting more and more interested. The debate was mostly very fair, factual and informed. Even entertaining. The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten used to claim that it provided its readers with a solid basis for forming their own opinions. Well, the Slashdot contributors did just that for me. I got help to form the opinion that the verdict isn’t an attack on the principle of linking on the web, it’s a carefully balanced judgement, where the judges left the courts room to manoeuvre in a case with different circumstances. No need for alarm.

The Slashdot crowd pick up stories, structure information, organize the world according to a certain mindset (“news for nerds”). That way, Slashdot is an aggregator, one of the places where order is imposed on chaos. Others – clusters of weblogs, interlinked by common interests and topics. And then there’s the über-aggregator, Google.

Before the web, before TV, the daily newspaper was the aggregator. It still is, of course, at least it tries to. The daily newspaper’s collage of news and stories from the nation and the world can still be very appealing. It’s strange that newspaper ideologues so often get away with telling us that the newspaper provides coherence, as opposed to the chaos of the internet. The newspaper itself is a masterpiece of incoherence, with all its juxtaposing of hyperimportant world affairs on this page, silly gossip on the opposite. That collage style is also one of the newspaper’s great attractions. To stumble over a truly surprising piece of information that you didn’t actively look for, can make your day. Much the same as discovering a new great blog in a blogroll, actually.

When it’s properly edited, the newspaper lets a world view or a mindset emerge from under its many big and small stories, but now there are so many other world view producers. It’s really not surprising that newspapers or TV stations aren’t able to retain their old role on the web. Sure, many of them are extremely successful in terms of readership on the web also, see the BBC and the New York Times. But I don’t see them as aggregators. Of course none of them thought of inventing a Google News.

Force and counterforce. A strong trend produces its opposite. Google had to be invented, Google News too. Clusters form. Expect to see more high quality forums slash sense-making aggregators. Expect more Slashdots.

The wild north

Let’s say many weblogs are authored by people with strong views, committed, happily biased. Let’s say many bloggers break rules and conventions. And let’s say they thoroughly enjoy that new tool of expression they now have at their disposal. Then let’s see if that description might also fit a man like Matthias Conrad Peterson. In 1795, Peterson took over as editor of Kongelig Allene Privileg. Throndhiems Adresse-Contoirs Efterretninger, or Adressa (Adresseavisen), as it is now known. The newspaper owners probably didn’t know about Mr. Peterson’s radical republican ideas when they hired him. But they soon found out, because he immediately started filling the newspaper with highly controversial commentaries, articles and news, according to my source here, media professor Svennik Høyer’s book “Pressen”. “Peterson lunges out against all the world’s kings and princes, and he applauds the execution of Louis 16th. He agitates for the freedom of the press and against the death penalty – but not against executions of French kings”, writes Høyer. Later Peterson started Norway’s first political journal, Qvartbladet, where he fervently attacked despotism, the aristocracy and the clergy. His favourite cause was freedom of speech. Høyer quotes him in original, and I risk a translation:

“The Despot can for a moment halt the exercise of this Right, but he is far too powerless to obliterate it, for its origin is God himself”.

Trondheim’s establishment was naturally often provoked by this untiring publicist, but he was allowed to carry on for several years, though one article, where he described an Englishman’s sensual pleasure of brushing a woman’s hair, was mildly criticized by Adresseavisen’s owners.

The wild men of the early phase of Norwegian journalism, wouldn’t they be bloggers today? Later, in the 1830s, the oppositional paper Statsborgeren spread fear among the mighty civil servants in pre-parlamentarian Norway. The editor Peder Pedersen Soelvold reveled in stories about the bureaucrats’ fraud, embezzlement and infringement. Soelvold was known to be arrogant, difficult and generally a troublemaker. A pain in the ass, no doubt.

So there are historic parallels and maybe lessons, as William Powers explores (sub.req.) in the US context in The Atlantic. A few decades after the likes of Peterson and Soelvold, started the era of professionalization that ended – culminated? – in the highly specialized media organizations of the late 20th century. Now, as Powers notes, “the disaggregation of the old mass audience has taken on a furious momentum”:

“For two centuries before the arrival of television America had a wild, cacophonous, emphatically decentralized media culture that mirrored society itself. And something like that media culture seems to be returning right now.”

Disaggregation is painful. Deprofessionalization isn’t unproblematic. That we have had some fierce bloggers vs. journalists debates, is no surprise. Are they over already? That looks a little premature, though I agree that there might be more interesting issues to discuss. Such as the question of voice, of allowing really individual voices in established media, of changing perceptions of credibility. Many more.

There will be a lot of debates – entertaining and enlightening, meaningless and misleading. Not boring. New Peterson’s and Soelvold’s – there are plenty of them waiting in the wings.

Cozy power

“2004 sucked!” A European blogger wrote that, but who? A teenybopper in Warsaw? A high school student in Gothenburg? No, the quote is from the first post of EU Commission Vice President Margot Wallström’s weblog. Wallström has been given the important task of communicating the EU’s policies to member state’s citizens (or “making Europeans love the EU”, as The Times dryly writes). One of the EU’s paradoxes is of course that its successes are taken for granted, while negative aspects get the full attention. The EU Commission is famous for its lack of transparency, so a blogging Commissioner who promises to write all posts herself, is definitely news. So what about that debut, with its mix of serious and humorous, from tsunami victims to long lunches and the year that sucked? Sorry. I don’t think this is what we really need – leading politicians posing as the reader’s friend and giving diary-style glimpses behind the curtains. Isn’t that what TV politics has been all about since the beginning – collapsing the formal distance between citizen and elected leader, constructing a false intimacy? It doesn’t have to be cynically calculated, maybe this is what Wallström thinks the public expects from a blog. Some of the same tendencies can be observed in Norwegian Socialist Left party leader Kristin Halvorsen’s blog. In one post, Halvorsen wrote about crashing on her sofa with a pile of newspapers, then commented briefly and not very originally on how a message from Osama bin Laden might influence the US election – this is pajama blogging at its least inspired. And in the end, that’s the reason why I think this quasi-personal blogging style won’t survive long among politicians. For one, they’ll discover that it won’t attract many readers. And second, to do an effective political blog, they need to give it more attention than they have time for. After all, even Howard Dean usually leaves the posting to staffers.

Stressless analysis

The stressless armchair is an icon of the Norwegian furniture industry. Norway seems to be obsessed with stress, for how can we otherwise explain that the official Norwegian word for the attaché case is “stresskoffert”? That Norwegians work less (paid) hours than most other people, may have something to do with it. But with less stress, we should be well positioned for armchair analysis. Maybe it was George Packer who started the “bloggers in pajamas vs journalists” debate with this good piece back in May. The overall conclusion isn’t hard to agree with – with bloggers around, we still need journalists out on the road and in the streets doing classic reporting work. But the title is probably very unlucky. There can’t be much doubt that many revolutions will be blogged. The orange-coloured events in Kiev a few weeks ago maybe count as a revolution, and they definitely were blogged. So bloggers can be in the streets also. And how many journalists are really out there in the physical world, out of the office? It would be interesting to know the percentage at any given time, my guess is it isn’t particularly high. Which might not be all bad, either. Consider Immanuel Kant, hardly a blogger or a journalist, but definitely analytically inclined. He never ventured further than 125 km from his home in Königsberg, Michael Angele notes in his delightful book “Ankunft Weltende, halb zwölf” (verified by scientists mapping Kant’s bio, including his travels). Relieved from the stress of travelling, Kant could concentrate on thinking and writing. Armchair analysis par excellence.