Sunday, June 18, 2006

Post No. 72: Blogging About Blogging

Unless all of you have been cut off from civilisation, you all would surely notice that there have been much talk about blogging & podcasting (collectively termed as “new media” or “alternative media”) recently, especially after the most recent General Elections. And, although I cannot remember exact figures or who conducted them, I know of surveys which show that there is a large and increasing number of people who, besides having blogs of their own, read blogs. With this in mind, many observers have put forth their opinions on the impact of this “new media” and how best to manage this impact.

Yet, it seems to me that it is equally important, if not more important, to look at the factors driving such a “new media” phenomenon. In other words, we need to understand why blogging (& podcasting) is so popular and examine why do people create & read them. Hence, in this essay, I will be attempting to answer these 2 questions and perhaps also offer my opinion on other related issues.

From my viewpoint, the main allure, besides it being free-of-charge, which lies behind this “new media” phenomenon is what I would term as “this is my blog and I can do whatever I like with it” factor. In other words, people are attracted into setting up blogs because they have a sense of ownership over the blogs that they set up. The blogs belong to them and the guidelines regulating what they put on them are just those that they set themselves. These bloggers can write (or rather blog) about their personal lives, share their artwork or literary work, talk about their hobbies or passions, give commentaries about the world around them and the list goes on. In short, they can blog about anything and everything, their imagination being the only limitation. Thus, people come to recognise blogs as an avenue which they can express themselves to the fullest, without having them needing to burn a large hole in their pockets.

Contrast this with the situation in the real world. Although we hate to admit it, there exists various factors which prevents us from expressing ourselves to the fullest. It may be that we are afraid of doing so, fearing that people may laugh at us, not pay attention to us, feel offended by what we have to say or that something awful will happen to us. Or it may be that we cannot find an appropriate opportunity or avenue to do so. It may even be that, knowing our opinion will be subjected to censorship/regulation in one way or another, we choose not to offer it. Hence, considering that there are various possible constraints preventing us from expressing ourselves fully, it is no wonder that people, perceiving blogs as an avenue which they can express themselves to the fullest, are attracted into creating blogs of their own.

Of course, blogs have an additional allure for those who are more adept at expressing themselves through the written word and less so with the spoken word (hmm… I suppose that I am such a person). Thus, in accordance with Billy Koh’s (许环良) constant refrain, during “Project Superstar”(“绝对Superstar”), of:“避短扬长”(“hide your weaknesses and display/flaunt your strengths”), these people choose to play to their strength through blogging. Yet, as some would argue, this preference with expressing oneself through blogging may result in one becoming less adept t expressing oneself or communicating with people face-to-face in reality. With regards to this, I am afraid that I can only say: “有一利,必生一弊” (“everything has its own pros & cons”) and it remains to be seen whether the cons will outweigh the pros or vice versa.

Also, the hassle free approach of blogs is another factor why people are attracted into setting up their own blogs. I mean, one just needs to find a suitable host for his/her blog (e.g. Blogspot, Livejournal, Open Diary), choose a template, create a distinctive website address, come up with a title for the blog and one is all ready to blog. Even the most non-technology savvy person (I’m afraid I may qualify for that epithet) can set his/her own blog with relative ease. This, I suppose, is the reason why the trend of setting up personal websites got displaced by the blogging phenomenon.

Okay now, having examined why blogging is so popular and why people are so attracted to creating blogs, I will now move on to discuss why people like reading blogs.

Well, I suppose that one main reason for why people like reading other people’s blogs is due to the voyeuristic streak in all of us. As much as we don’t like to admit it, it is undeniable that we all have an insatiable sense of curiousity about other people’s lives. And we are given the opportunity to “legally” peek into the lives of other people without feeling guilty about it (unlike when we read another person’s diary) through reading their blogs. I mean, where else can you all find people putting on display details of their personal lives for all to see (and some even include photos or video clips of themselves) but on the myriad of blogs that can be found on the internet?

Of course, as some would point out, here lies a hidden danger of blogging about your private life. And that danger is that bloggers may be putting their precious privacy at risk. I mean, one can never be 100% certain about who are reading our blogs. Yes, I am aware that some may dispute that bloggers who blog about their personal lives are really exhibitionists at heart and it is their own choice to lose their sense of privacy through blogging about their private lives. Nobody is forcing them, with a gun to their heads, to blog about their personal lives, is there?

Yet, it should be noted that some bloggers initially only wanted their blogs to be read by their close friends & family members and it was never their intention to expose their personal lives to the entire world. Unfortunately, it is a most difficult task to keep one’s blog from prying eyes (unless one sets a password system to restrict access but I think this service is only available on certain servers which host blogs) when there exists powerful search engines like Google & Technorati and sites like (which combs the “blogosphere” in search of interesting blogs). Also, though the internet is a vast place with no definite boundaries, news and information tend to spread like wildfire on it (think the recent “Tammy” video clip incident). Thus, even if one wants to keep one’s blog “private”, that, unfortunately, is something easier said than done. In fact, during these few days, I just got wind of how a local girl’s (okay, I would not lie, this girl is what most people would call “attractive”) photos on her blog got posted onto a website, without her permission, that “complies” photos of “attractive” Asian females. Hence, in the end, I suppose all bloggers, especially those who blog about their personal lives, would have to recognise the fact that their blogs are not “private” but instead are very “public” and make their own choice on whether they want to put their sense of privacy at risk. I, for one, prefer to keep my sense of privacy and thus seldom blog about my personal life here (of course, I also rather not bore you all with mundane details about my mostly uninteresting life).

Besides allowing us to have a sneak peek into the private lives of others, another appeal of blogs is that they are able to offer us alternative viewpoints about interesting issues which the “traditional media” (i.e. newspapers, magazines & TV), constrained by its structural framework, may fail to provide us with. This appeal of “new media” is excellently illustrated in the context of various blogs, which emerged during the most recent General Elections, that commented on the happenings of the campaign period and also on the results. These blogs attracted people, who felt that the local “traditional media” lacking in adequate coverage of the opposition parties and their election rallies, who wanted not only to know more about opposition parties’ activities but also read about alternative viewpoints on the governing party’s policy suggestions. In fact, after the election, there were several letters in the Straits Times Forum that bemoaned the perceived lack of objectivity of the local “traditional media” in their coverage of the General Elections, citing the information that the “new media” presented which the local “traditional media” failed to do so (I shall be talking more about the impact of the “new media” on “traditional media” later on).

Of course, the vernacular, and sometimes colourful, nature of the language used in the “new media” is another reason why people, finding this entertaining, enjoy reading them. I mean, when was the last time that you all heard or seen dialects such as Hokkien and/or expletives, which some may strangely find endearing, being used in the local “traditional media”?

Okay now, I have a confession to make. When I wrote earlier that bloggers are restricted by their imagination only when it comes to what they can put on their blogs, I was exaggerating. As all of you would most probably know, due to the “public” nature of blogs, bloggers will have to keep in mind the basic standards of decency and the laws of the state when they blog. Also, due to the fact that blogs can be and are read by many around the world, bloggers, especially celebrity bloggers (i.e. people who have become famous through blogging e.g. Xiaxue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Miyagi and Gayle Goh), have to think about the influence that their blog entries can have on those reading them. Hence, in the end, it would seems that even in the “blogosphere”, total freedom of expression remains elusive.

That aside, I would like to say to those who think that discussion on political & social issues in the “blogosphere” is just frivolous “coffeeshop talk” that they are sorely mistaken. Yes, I concede that there are undoubtedly blogs which are frivolous when commenting on political & social issues. However, to assume that all blogs are frivolous in nature and thus not worth paying attention to would be to miss the woods for the trees. There exists also blogs which discuss about political & social issues in a serious, responsible manner and offer mature alternative analysis about such issues. Though such blogs may perhaps still be small in numbers but, as it is always said, it is quality that counts, not quantity. Thus, it is my contention that if the authors of such blogs banded together, they could possibly form a mini- think tank of their own in the “blogosphere”.

Well, there have been those who, recognising the increasing popularity of the “new media” and the almost professional quality of some of the blogs, suggest that the “new media” may develop into a significant rival of the “traditional media”. In fact, there are those who says that the “traditional media” suffers from the risk of being displaced by the “new media”. Indeed, the impact of the “new media” is so significant that local “traditional media” have been putting in effort to revamp themselves so as to maintain their relevance to the general public. An example of this would be The New Paper getting Xiaxue to become a guest columnist for them and FHM (or is it Maxim Singapore?) having Izzy (a.k.a. Sarong Party Girl) answering questions from their (mostly male) readers. Another excellent example would be the Straits Times’s recent launch of “Stomp” (Straits Times Online Mobile Print) which roped in celebrity bloggers like Xiaxue & Dawn Yang and blogging celebrities (celebrities who blog) like MTV VJs May & Choy and included a section for podcasts. Well, while such efforts by the local “traditional media” are laudable, it remains to be seen whether they will be successful in achieving their aims. [Of course, I think that the Straits Times’ decision to name the youth-oriented section of “Stomp” as “STink” is a very bad idea which stinks, pun very intended.]

Yet, having said that, I would like to clarify that while the “new media” may be rising in popularity and though it indirectly exposes the deficiencies of the “traditional media”, it is my opinion that the “new media” would not displace the “traditional media”. In fact, I would say that they may perhaps complement one another. Yes, while the “traditional media”, constrained by its structural framework, may fail to provide us with the full story, it nonetheless still have its own strengths which the “new media” does not have. For one, governmental figures and/or civil servants, at least for now, would most probably still prefer to be interviewed by and appear in the “traditional media” than in the “new media”. I mean, can you imagine PM Lee or MM Lee accepting to be interviewed or appear on the “Mr. Brown Show”? Yes, while the “traditional media” has its own constraints, it, being established, still has a large pool of resources and sources to tap on. Also, it should be noted that though some bloggers do have access to sources which the “traditional media” do not have access to, most bloggers still by and large depend on the “traditional media” for information on current affairs. Furthermore, it is my opinion that the “new media” mainly fulfils the role of filling in the gaps to issues not fully covered by the “traditional media” and/or provides alternative viewpoints on issues reported by it. Hence, I would contend that despite what most people may think, the “new media” and the “traditional media” complements one another, in that they are able to provide what the other fails to provide.

I shall now move on to examine the issue of managing and/or regulating the “new media”. In my opinion, it is not a question of whether the “new media” should be regulated or not but more of a question of how much regulation there should be. I mean, if we allow the “new media” to go totally unregulated, it is possible that it may be misused by those with ill intentions to stir up trouble and/or to spread false information. On the other hand, however, if we regulate too much, not only would we stifle the positive development of the “new media”, we may even create a massive backlash against the authorities which regulate the “new media”. This situation of how much to regulate is akin to the classic (and some say clichéd) dilemma of holding a sparrow in our hand. If we grasp too tight, the sparrow will die but if we grasp too little, the sparrow will fly away. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the local authorities will be able to find that delicate balance between regulating too little and regulating too much. We will just have to wait and see if the “lighter touch” approach announced recently by Dr. Lee Boon Yang, Minister for Information, Communications & the Arts, will be able to do it right. And, of course, it would be impossible and, in fact, counter-productive to attempt to ban or suppress the “new media”. For as Dr. Sun Yat-sen have said: “世界潮流,浩浩荡荡。 顺之者昌,逆之者亡。” (which roughly means: “The course of History is unstoppable. Those who abide by it will prosper while those who go against it will suffer.”).

In conclusion, I would just like to say that the development of the “new media” is and will continue to be a most interesting trend worth paying attention to. Hopefully, the impact of the “new media” will prove to be benign in the long run, not destructive.

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