Peter M Howard ::

wintermute.com.au

Australian Identity and Online Writing

11December2005 [myth]
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Warning: Essay follows; this is what happens when the brain dumps core

A couple of events have recently got me thinking about Australian blogs, and what is most worthy of notice is that I had _never_ even thought of using ‘Australian’ as an identifier when talking about a blog. Sure, many blogs are clearly ‘American’, and that’s a whole ‘nother issue, but I hadn’t noticed anywhere else in the online world building an identity around nationality.

The first event was a contest run by a webhost who shall remain nameless to find ‘Australia’s best blog’, or more specifically, its reporting. The contest featured a A$10,000 prize, and at first I dismissed it. One the one hand, it seemed a cheap grab for publicity in Australian media, and on the other, it seemed absurd to try and locate a ‘best blog’ anywhere, let alone in Australia. My feelings haven’t changed, but the reporting of the event on the Razor blog on the SMH/Age got me thinking (and I had other thoughts brewing on the Razor site itself).

The second event was the retirement from journalism of Margo Kingston, author of ‘Not Happy John’, and online identity behind the Webdiary site, formerly a blog hosted by SMH, since a site for independent journalism.

There are all sorts of things I could say about the blog competition, but what I’m really interested in is the idea of nationality. What about a blog makes it Australian? The very nature of the internet is that one is no longer tied to location nor to national identity. My site has a .au extension, which I specifically chose, because I do want a basic Australian identity - mainly to distinguish from the American monopoly on the .com extension. But in the past year, I’ve been writing from France, on a .au site which is hosted in America. And further, I’ve been watching France and the United States more than I have Australia - certainly I haven’t been reading Australian sites as a ‘local’ (I wrote more on reading local newspapers recently). What I mean to say is, I don’t consider my site ‘Australian’. And, perhaps because the sites I read skew towards the American (and a few European), rather than Australian, I’d considered that normal. The few Australian sites I read regularly are involved with techie circles based out of Silicon Valley.

But then along comes this competition, and a rather odd selection of blogs come in the top ten. The winner was an audio artist, then there are rather standard personal blogs, and (more bizarrely) tightly focussed product blogs (the annoying kind that support themselves by advertising, and probably made plenty out of this comp). The people running the comp argue that they want to show just how diverse blogs can be, but I suspect they missed the point (or perhaps two points) entirely. The Razor site had lots to say about the judging process (its writer being on the judging panel), and the comments there were all over the place, but largely very critical of the selection of winner. What’s odd is that people didn’t like that an artist won - they wanted the prize to go to a ‘normal’ person (probably because then they could all hold on to their fantasies that they could win next year). But sure blogs can be diverse, and they can be artistic, but an award should go to someone who demonstrates the power of blogging: someone with influence, or someone who demonstrates a keen insight into a particular subject matter (so I’m not ruling out product blogs!). The second point they missed has to do with Australian identity - the few top blogs I looked at didn’t show _any_ signs of Australian identity, they were just blogs like any else. On the one hand the comp (and the Australian sites and bloggers that supported it) seems terribly introspective, and demonstrates a rather old-fashioned/old-media understanding of what blogging is about (I’m not going to make the mistake of worshipping blogging as citizen’s journalism, but there’s surely material that competes with journalistic writing!), and on the other hand: if you’re going to have a comp focus on Australia, why not demonstrate some sort of Australian identity?!

Now the question of journalism raises some interesting issues that I’ve not really seen dealt with, and barely even noticed outside of Australia. This relates both to Razor (and Bleeding Edge, a blog run by the same author) and to Webdiary, both at one time hosted under the SMH/Age banner. Perhaps I see a problem here because I’m _used_ to a clear distinction between journalism and blogging, as the old media in the States and the bloggers there like to position themselves at loggerheads (that whole opposition-al thing is so American). Now, my understanding is that the authors of Razor (a tech blog) and of Webdiary (a political blog), have journalism backgrounds, hence the Fairfax connection. But neither site ever came across as a journalist blogging, which is a shame, and certainly cause for confusion under the SMH masthead. Webdiary ran with the SMH for some time, before moving to be independent, with crazy ideals of independent/citizen journalism (hehe, the aussie left appropriating the american left once more, forgetting about the huge differences in cultural/social context, but I digress). I think moving away from the SMH was the right move, as the material they were running shouldn’t be connected to a major newspaper, but of course, the material got even worse without _some_ editorial oversight and I soon stopped reading. The site became absurdly anti-government, and freed from any illusions of journalistic integrity started presenting far more assertion than fact. But, just to confuse things a little, the site stuck with the moderated comments system inherited from the SMH - and it wasn’t simply approving non-spam comments, it was as bad as an old-media ‘Letters to the Editor’ page, where the sites moderators carefully selected what ran, killing any chance for dialogue. It’s no surprise that the site _didn’t_ last as an independent though: Margo Kingston expected a journalist’s salary (she was constantly referred to as a journalist, despite that fact that she was no longer employed by the paper), and was running the equivalent of a lefty rag without a business model. I have _no_ idea where they expected to make any money, nor how they expected to expand their audience enough to support them when they catered to such a niche!

The vibe I get/got from both Razor and Webdiary is actually quite disappointing: as if combining the arrogance of a journalist who believes their education backs up anything they have to say, and a blogger who believes their independence boosts their integrity. Both authors try and be familiar with the readers (blogger), while insulting their intelligence when it suits (journalist). Worse, because they’re ‘bloggers’ not journalists, they seem to think they’re not responsible when they misreport things!

Anyway, I’ve ranted enough about these sites, and I’ll admit that there may be other great Australian voices out there. But what bugs me is the bizarre introverted, nationalistic voices, and the rather absurd combination of journalism and blogging. I think Fairfax deserves praise for its experiment in blogging, but should either cut its bloggers off before they worsen their reputation, or (far better) publish bloggers under a different banner/brand, and get clear on their identity: if they’re not newspaper columnists, run them as ‘bloggers’, and don’t worry about the connotations of amateurism. Of course, they don’t have to be called bloggers: they’re just online writers. But importantly, they shouldn’t be hiding behind the veils of journalism.

So to summarise and somehow tie this rant back to Australian identity: it bugs me that Australian blogs are represented by these people: either as personal blogs with no real identity, or in the guise of journalism (when it suits). If we are to develop _any_ Australian identity online (which I’m not convinced is necessary, but anyway), it should be with good writers who demonstrate a particular flair for writing online. Online writing is _not_ journalism, it can also be art, and it is also open and personal. But when it’s just someone’s personal diary, it’s only a blog (and it belongs on blogger.com).

Of course, most of the best Australian writers online are probably those who I don’t even realise (except tangentially) are actually Australian: because online writing is international, and old borders are more and more meaningless.

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