Fifth Estate or Democratic Tool?

An old printing press at the Guardian's offices in Farringdon, London.
When we think about blogging and the development of human interactions through the web, it is easy to assume some kind of historical determinism.  The Internet is one huge sandbox, with new blogs and campaigning sites being launched all the time.  Most peter out (I’ve been involved in a couple of those myself) but others persist, and grow.  This trial-and-error approach suggests that we are at least inching towards a more sophisticated and empowering blogosphere, which exercises more influence over politics and therefore the direction this country is headed.
The Blog Nation event earlier this week raised some of the key issues that the Liberal Left needs to answer in order to become more effective online:

  • Are we campaigners or pseudo-journalists?
  • Will it suffice to form ad hoc coalitions to fight single-issue campaigns, or should we be forming a more formal and wider coalition to try and affect a broader cultural shift?
  • In order to be effective, do we need to promote the rise of super-blogs or power-bloggers to rival Guido Fawkes?  Do we need a figure-head like Barack Obama around which we can coalesce, or can a leaderless network build momentum on its own?

As I crouched in the front row of the event, rubbing my temples and trying to think of answers, the following thought occurred to me: What if this is all there is? By which I mean, perhaps it is impossible to become much more organized.  I refrained from articulating this thought at the time, but it did seem a deft, if nihilistic way of avoiding giving an answer to some of the questions posed, above.  Perhaps there is no historical determinism to any of this, and we are not destined to develop anything significantly more efficient than what we have now.
Now I don’t know whether I really believe things to be so hopeless, but if its true it may not be such a bad thing.  Rather than grandiose ideas of the blogosphere become some kind of Fifth Estate, perhaps we should aspire to nothing more than another tool for the people to use in checking the power of the elite (both elected representatives and others who hold positions of influence).
Of course we should ask how existing bloggers and activists can work better together, but that is just oiling the machine, rather than inventing a new one.  A more important focus is to try to increase access to the new information and opinion that is appearing online.  Just as increasing literacy strengthens democracy and promote equality, so computer literacy can strengthen it too.  So, my suggestion for the next open source campaignintroduce one relative, friend or colleague to blogging each month.  This need not mean forcing them to set up their own blog.  Instead, just a gentle explanation of the power of RSS, and the suggestion that they bookmark one – just one – of the fine sites listed on the right.
Cross posted at the Liberal Conspiracy

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