Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The decline and fall of the blogosphere, Part 1

In between attacks, Isaac Butler (above) blogs about his hair.

The bizarre reaction in the blogosphere to my articles about Emily Glassberg Sands has made me ponder once again the central flaws in the concept of blogging-as-journalism. What struck me about the generally negative reaction to my analyses was that a) my attackers, almost to a man/woman, admitted they hadn't actually read the study in question, but were going to sling mud anyway; b) they were insulted by my politics (which they misunderstood), and my skeptical "confidence"; and c) they knew, or wanted to know, or wanted to work with, some or all of the people I was criticizing.

All this is troubling to anyone who imagines that the arts blogosphere can function as something other than a forum for self-promotion, log-rolling, or ignorant pseudo-argument.

Of course I know it was naïve to imagine that blogs could operate for long as an improvement on print journalism - but really, did they have to sink to, or perhaps even beneath, the standards of print so quickly? Already the local "blogosphere" is choked with "blogs" that are either adjuncts of print outlets, or p.r. vehicles for various producers. And many of the supposedly "independent" bloggers, like Matt Freeman and Isaac Butler, have begun saying openly that hey, they can't really be trusted on the issues, because they're trying to make a career in theatre, and so can't afford to offend anybody.

Take the following paragraph(s) from Isaac Butler of Parabasis:

I've been writing about and engaging in the NYC theatre scene for awhile now and everyone knows everyone and I'm not exactly at a point in my career where I can afford to go pissing people off willy-nilly. So my choices become: attack a peer (or their work) or attack a larger theater (or their work). Shit where I live or fuck up my career. Those are the choices . . . . Not being an idiot, and not enjoying bad either/or scenarios, I tend not to post blog posts that will fall into those categories. It's not that I don't think about those things, or have those conversations with friends. To give one example: A major off-broadway theatre put up a play earlier this year that was clearly unfinished and not ready for production on a script level. Everyone who saw it that I talked to knew it. Several of the people I talked to about it were bloggers. But we talked about in a bar. Not on the internet. I don't really want to go slagging off a show where the director and light designer were both friends of mine to the end of...what, exactly? It's not like the theater's lit manager is going to write in in my comments and engage with me on the issue of their shitty new work program that does plays that aren't ready for prime time. For what it's worth, I tried to corner their lit manager at the TCG conference so that I could ask him about it, but couldn't find him . . . Anyway, the point is is that I have to think at least a little bit strategically here. So this blog won't always say all the shit that goes through my head. Every now and then I gotta hold back.

"I gotta hold back." Uh-huh. (Amusingly, in a great post just a few days earlier, Butler quite rightly criticized MSM corporate parents for making the same calculations he himself is making.) Of course Butler isn't alone in this admission - Matt Freeman said much the same thing about my posts on Sands; he admitted he envied "the ability to be unfiltered."

So, if we know these guys' posts are "filtered" out of (understandable) self-interest, why, exactly, should we trust them? It's an interesting question - one solved, partially, by the MSM via the fact that it (once) had an independent source of income (subscriptions, advertising) which could support some level of editorial independence. As we all know, that model is collapsing. But it's also worth noting that the arts blogosphere has no model for editorial independence at all. So how can we really pretend that the blogosphere can "replace" the MSM? I sense another series coming on . . .


  1. Looking forward to reading more of this series, particularly for a description of what you consider a model of "editorial independence" to be. If career damage is a concern, why not start an anonymous blog (or filter their "scoops" through a blogger/writer who won't be hurt by it--for instance, you)?

    Actually wanted to comment on your sidebar, too: that story of yours trumps the one that I had, about the guy who simply answered his phone during a performance--and continued to talk for five minutes.

  2. The biggest issue I have with your post is that it seems to say - perhaps unintentionally - that blogging is journalism. Unless I'm reading you wrong, so please clarify.

    And I think it's important to acknowledge a difference. Blogging is an entirely different medium and blogging as a practice can take in a lot of things - including journalism. One of the difficulties in discussing these issues is getting everyone on the same page with respect to the terms we're using, so pardon my being so nit-picky.

    This is an important discussion to have and I hope we can keep it moving forward.

  3. Actually, what I'm trying to say is that blogging is not journalism. Like you said, it can encompass many things - the problem is that one of those things is a kind of pseudo-journalism that more and more folks are unconsciously relying on as their "news of the world" for theatre and the other arts. This series of posts is meant to interrogate that assumption.

    But I don't think you're being nit-picky. Nor am I sure I have an answer to the conundrums that the economic impact of the Internet is forcing on our discourse. The reason I picked on Isaac is that he's such a flagrant - indeed, self-trumpeting - example of the blogosphere's hypocrisies and flaws.