On occasion I've seen blogging and what it's evolving into described as citizen journalism. In fact it seems to me that Jim Elve, our proprietor at the E-Group, has used that phrase himself more than once. Discussions on this subject often centre on the journalism part but I think we'd do well to remember that the word "citizen" is also part of that phrase.
Secret ballots are an accepted part of our electoral process. While anyone is free to advertise his or her preference for an elected office, it's accepted that some choose not to and that in no way invalidates their choices. When my ballot is counted, my name isn't attached to it. So when some suggest that a different standard should apply to a blog post than to a ballot, I have to wonder what they think the blogosphere is or what they're trying to turn it into. And I'm afraid that imposing that higher standard might take the citizen out of citizen journalism.
Close readers of the E-Group may have already figured out that I'm writing this in response to a conversation that played out in this thread where there was discussion on the pros and cons of pseudonymous blogging and anonymous commenting. A quick glance at the byline on this post should be enough to indicate which side of the issue I come down on.
At one point in the discussion Jim announced a new policy for this group blog: all new writers would be required to post under their real names. Even though it was clear to me that I would be grandfathered in as an established member of the group, I was uncomfortable enough with the idea that I immediately announced my intention to withdraw from the group if that policy was going to stand.
If I'm interpreting Jim's subsequent comments correctly, that policy has now been retracted or at least amended. Jim has indicated that as a consumer of blogs, he tends to be more sceptical of content when it's not published under a real name. He's inclined to examine the content more carefully and to look for more of a track record before he lends credibility to a blogger whose identity remains concealed and he intends to do the same when considering new applications for membership here. Fair enough. I don't approach blogs as a consumer in quite the same way — at least not consciously — but it's a perfectly valid approach. And if I was considering giving someone posting privileges at my own site I'd probably be fussier than Jim is. I just question whether an across-the-board policy rather than a case-by-case approach is the right way to proceed. And I'm concerned about the implications of too much policy imposed on blogging from the top down.
One of the wonderful things about this medium, and one of the main reasons it's growing and evolving so quickly, is the astonishingly low barrier to entry. Anyone with a minimally powerful computer and an internet connection can start a blog and join the conversation. That's why we call it citizen journalism. It provides a way for anyone to participate in the public debate in a way that didn't exist just a few years ago. So I think any policy that creates a new barrier to entry should be viewed with scepticism and approached with caution.
Some have argued that's it cowardly to present an opinion without attaching your real name to it and staking your personal reputation on it. That argument in itself acknowledges that there can be a risk attached to expressing some opinions. While full credit should go to those who knowingly face risk when they express themselves, why should risk be required? Isn't the blogosphere big enough to allow for those who are concerned about losing a job, being shunned by the family or even being stalked and harassed by some looney tune with a poor grip on reality and no impulse control? What would it say about a medium that many of us regard as a positive development for democracy if we started to deny participants in the debate the ability to decide for themselves how much or how little they care to reveal about their personal lives?
It's also been argued that criticism of the established media is invalid unless those who put the criticism forward meet the same standards that apply to the media practitioners themselves. At best that argument indicates a misunderstanding of what the blogosphere is and what it can be. At worst it's both self-serving and a pretty scary indication of where things stand these days. When we talk about what we traditionally think of as "the media", like most bloggers I'm not a member, I'm a consumer. Corporate consolidation in the press and the broadcast industry is moving us increasingly to a place where the media as institutions are accountable to their shareholders first with the public coming a distant second. If we as consumers are required to submit our resumés and pass muster before our complaints about shoddy service are even considered, then we're in even more trouble than I thought.
My own grip on anonymity is actually pretty weak and I suspect that the repercussions of dropping the mask wouldn't be all that significant for me personally. And I can certainly imagine circumstances where I would decide to do just that. If I was being paid to pontificate, if I was blogging on behalf of a candidate for elected office or working on behalf of an established lobbying group then I'd have to seriously consider whether different standards should apply. But right now I'm not doing any of those things. I'm an individual expressing individual opinions who happens to have chosen blogging as one way to do that.
In our society freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege. We don't require that an individual citizen meet some pre-ordained set of criteria before being allowed to express an opinion. Instead we err on the side of allowing free expression unless and until that freedom is abused. I'd like to think that blogging can continue to work in the same way. Certainly allowing for anonymity will mean that at times the blogosphere is messy and difficult.
The same can be said for democracy.
Cross-posted at the E-Group.