Contrary to the James Bond film's title, the world is big enough, certainly when it comes to voicing opinions on social networking and blogging sites. Everybody has the right to open their minds and if their work has an intrinsic value, the audiences will come.
On 12 March media critic and journalism professor at New York University Jay Rosen wrote a blog post entitled The Twisted Psychology of Bloggers vs. Journalists: My Talk at South By Southwest where he revisited another post he’d written some years ago, entitled Bloggers vs Journalists is over. In the post written this year, Rosen got to the bottom of the tendency by the mainstream media to heap bile and scorn on bloggers and identified it as inspired by fear as its claim to exclusive power over the zeitgeist erodes away and other power bases sprung up online.
One famous example of this phenomenon (which Rosen quoted) was a rant by Andrew Marr, the former political editor of the BBC, who said, “A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting.” He went on to say that “the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times, but it is not going to replace journalism.”
Rosen quoted many other examples and the point was well-made: Traditional media are not taking kindly to the rise of bloggers at all.
The political analyst and lecturer Eusebius McKaiser raised the topic again (with a slightly different complexion) on 14 April in a Facebook Note entitled, “The unfortunate invention of Khaya Dlanga”. McKaiser laments what he sees as the rise of online ‘thought leaders’ who wield influence online because of the number of “followers” or “friends” they may have accumulated, and not on the strength or seriousness of their content. “Social networking sites,” McKaiser wrote, “precisely because they have no gatekeepers, allow too many of us to simply dump data into the virtual abyss that is the Internet. As a result, way too many folks have become social networking celebrities not on the basis of thoughtful comment, but purely as a function of the number of so-called ’followers’ they have on Twitter or the hordes of ‘Facebook friends’ they have.
“The medium has become the message. Traits like thoughtfulness and habits like reading before you speak or (heaven forbid) reflecting before you comment, are dispensable in the virtual world. This wouldn’t be a big deal, but for the fact that, sadly, these trends hurt public debate.
“Khaya Dlanga is one such virtual invention. Here is a name that is famous for being famously virtually famous. The basis of the fame? Numbers. At last count, he had 4,979 Facebook friends and, I am told by Twitter fans, equally high numbers of ‘followers’ on Twitter. The result? What he says gets talked about, gets him invited to conferences and radio and television debates, and even (seriously!) gets him a place at the table with the US ambassador to South Africa,” wrote McKaiser. (Dlanga has 13566 followers on Twitter – Ed.)
It is the old complaint against the rise of bloggers and online commentators. The Internet has given every person who can access it an equal voice. Social networking sites have brought those voices together and act as a megaphone to trumpet these voices across the net. This is a sinister development because it means every fool on earth can have his or her say, and people actually read it! The horror!
McKaiser is off the mark in his analysis of how influence works online. He contends that bloggers like Khaya Dlanga and Sentletse Diakanyo (who had “15 minutes of infamy last year, rehearsing poor arguments about why whites cannot self-identify as African”, McKaiser tut-tuts) are influential because of the high number of followers they have. A high number of followers (especially if people are attracted by the content posted online, and not because the person has, say, a minor role in some soap opera) is usually a good indication of how seriously people take what the person in question has to say. But it does not necessarily follow that a high follower count equals an influential online presence. Nor are all online commentators with a high following merely “famous for being famous”.
Online commentators with high followings cannot be painted in the same brush. By that logic, should we be compelled to dismiss McKaiser’s argument on the basis that this note was posted on Facebook, to be read and bickered over by his 2,959 Facebook friends?
I’m afraid if McKaiser can’t use the fact that Dlanga and Diakanyo have a large number of people who connect with them online to say that the basis of their influence is numbers (if McKaiser was on Twitter and Facebook more, he’d know that).
What McKaiser is really getting at here is that these undeservingly famous bloggers are the opinion leaders of the day and shape public discourse. To me, he takes an incredibly one-dimensional view of people who consume online content. He seems to believe that people mindlessly consume whatever is served up online without challenging or at least thinking about it first. To him, if it’s online, it is read without any mental filter being applied.
If someone were to raise a subject I felt they discussed inadequately, I would certainly go on to find someone who debates the issues satisfactorily. I would assume that you do too, dear reader. McKaiser does not seem to consider this eventuality.
The heart of my quarrel with McKaiser’s contention is that it is only the opinions of “serious” academics and columnists that we should take seriously. Only they are fit to mould public debate. This argument has the same ring to it as the former political editor’s tirade against bloggers.
I wish McKaiser and everyone else who observes the rise of social media and social networking with dread would just get on with it and stop worrying. The world is big enough for everybody. There is room enough for the type of commentary that Dlanga and Diakanyo offer without crowding out academic commentary that McKaiser is obviously championing. For some people, consuming the type of content offered up on blogs may be enough. Most will choose to consume a little of everything. And that is the great thing about the social networks and the Internet – there is more choice than we have ever had before. Does that harm public debate? Hardly.
Instead of worrying, McKaiser should be celebrating the fact that more people are engaging with the issues of the day, or at least trying to. So what if the discourse on the interwebs isn’t of the highest possible standard? McKaiser is offering readers a choice with the content he posts online. So is Dlanga and so too is every other commentator. It is up to every individual to choose what they want to read and to engage with what interests them. We cannot ask for more.
As Rosen wrote in his blog post: Get over it. Move on. There’s bigger work to be done. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.