Is the blogosphere full of citizen journalists who, with a seemingly limitless supply of bandwidth and resources at their fingertips, are becoming a powerful addition to the mainstream media? Or is it in danger of slipping into the 21st Century version of cable talk shows, where those who can shout their outrage the loudest get the most attention?
Discussion about the blogosphere has long included two topics that generate a tremendous amount of impassioned feelings on all sides. The first is the value of bloggers as journalists. Blogging champions tout the ability of blogs to perform as well, if not better, than traditional news organizations in exploring stories and issues, digging up information and connections and breaking news. Even some of their biggest critics acknowledge at times that bloggers perform valuable services in that area.
The second oft-discussed topic about the blogosphere has been civility, or lack thereof. There are plenty of examples about the issue of civility, enough to make you start thinking that raw discourse is simply part of the whole deal. But could all this unbridled, unchecked and unfiltered anger be having a real impact on the blogosphere as a whole?
There would be plenty of people arguing that the kind of discourse happening on many blogs undermines the actual points bloggers and commenters are trying to make. I'm not convinced of that. A strong verbalization of deeply-held feelings can often help make an argument. I might cringe at some of the more nasty things written on some blogs, but the real below-the-belt stuff isn't as common as some may lead you to believe. The real danger, it seems to me, is a perception of blogs as reactions gauges – a perception that appears to be growing.
Take, for example, the whole Stephen Colbert-White House Correspondent's Dinner flap. Please, for once, just try to put aside whether you thought he was funny, courageous, dull, or whatever and look at the broader picture. After a couple of days of much angst among liberal blogs over the lack of news coverage given Colbert's performance, The New York Times stepped up to the plate today with a story about it. Only it wasn't a story about Colbert so much as it was about how the blogosphere was reacting to Colbert.
Blogswarms have existed just about as long as blogs themselves and the ability to either demonstrate or gauge the depth of feeling about an issue or particular story is one of more valuable aspects of the blogosphere as a whole – sort of like a semi-organized uprising and insta-poll wrapped up together. But sometimes blogs emit little more than anger and venom. Other times, blog posts are thoughtful, full of research that connect dots. When bloggers get more attention for the volume and tone of their discourse than what they might be adding to the dialogue, they are in danger of being marginalized by those on the outside, especially in the mainstream media. Blogs begin to be seen as a pool of emotional response instead of interesting additions to a story or topic.
Over time, will the question, "how are bloggers reacting?" start to simply overwhelm the more valuable question of, "what are bloggers saying?" Like many cable news programs, which seem to crave neat, snappy analysis over nuanced thinking, will blogs be evaluated only on their ability to slice and dice an opposing view rather than the value they could possibly bring to the table? Will blog-rage simply overpower citizen journalism? Just asking.