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Blogs and comment pieces – Spurious and proud

March 11, 2016

I’ve hit upon a common mistake people make when they read blogs and comment pieces. The mistake people are making is thinking that the person who writes the things expects it to be believed by everyone who reads it, word for word and point for point.

Once upon a time, and still in certain circles, people discussed “thought experiments”. Thought experiments are arguments or theories which are not there to be correct; they are there to be interesting. They are there to make people think, to consider the world a different way, to imagine a world of thought outside the box.

I’m not dissing the box. The box is good. Most scientific theory is firmly in the box. Even if it starts life out of the box, as information and evidence is gathered, it slowly climbs into the box and we all reference it when we make our most rational arguments. But blogs and comment pieces aren’t like that; the evidence they contain is circumstantial, and the sample size small.

This is because a blog or comment piece is a quick piece of writing, generally meant to capture an idea that is current and create discussion on it. In other words, they are thought experiments; things which people imagine, come up with out of nowhere, observe possibly from false principles, and spout freely.

The value of this is that it allows the free, unfettered flowing of ideas which are interesting without being provable. If you could only ever say what you could immediately prove, you could never make a hypothesis. A comment piece is basically a hypothesis that the writer does not intend to personally prove, because they are not a researcher and in any case, they are too biased to properly look into it. They may, as some activists do, undertake some research in order to substantiate what they already feel to be the case, at least to some extent in some circumstances.

But comment pieces are just spouting of thoughts. Sometimes these are terrible thoughts, badly expressed thoughts, or simply unoriginal. At other times, these thoughts do as they intended; they promote discussion, some of which taking the form of general agreement, some of which disagreement. Most importantly of all, on the internet we create a dialogue whereby we fine tune ideas and whittle them down into what seems likely and what doesn’t, based on what other people have observed. In other words, the writer doesn’t have to seek a research sample. By the fact of expressing their opinion, the sample comes to them.

If the majority of people who read it do not concur to any small degree with the opinion expressed, it may well sink and never make any impression on society. If, however, many people do find that the idea resonates with them, it can become the basis of whole new theories and movements with many supporters. Some of the most influential works that ever existed were nothing but thought experiments, off-the-wall theories and opinions expressed emphatically and literately.

The major mistake is to think that blogging is a kind of citizen journalism, and commentary is a type of journalism provided it is done by a recognised journalist and placed in a publication that also contains journalistic material. Studying journalism myself has convinced me that good journalism is, not, as suggested by many in the practise, an art. It is a science. There is methodology in locating the truth and organising it in such a way that it can be understood and interpreted. The knowledge gathered does not lose its importance just because it is badly presented, any more than the findings of a significant scientific paper hold no merit if they are too technical for the masses. The writing simply makes it accessible enough that it is likely to have a greater impact. This is the art part of journalism – it involves storytelling skill. But it is the least, the easiest, skill in journalism. Fact-checking and curating are harder and more important. There is no journalism without fact.

Blogs are not journalism, and neither are comment pieces. They are not sciences, they are art. Their merit is on how they capture the imagination and cause people to think, not whether or not they are a collection of verifiable truths. Suffice to say that most readers of blogs care very little. Just as well, because if blogging and journalism were the same, journalism would be the one to die, since it needs money to live.

So, commentary should be left to breathe, to flash its private parts freely in the wind with scrutiny and scepticism, but not scorn for the lack of fact. It is not a fact medium, and only the more naïve bloggers feel that their endeavours are wasted if they can’t fully convince every reader of their point. In reality, discussion leads to slow-burning social revolution, probably more than simple fact. Here, I make a blog-like assertion: I think it’s because fact takes a long time to collect but a short time to disseminate. It may fall like a lead balloon and be lost.

But there will always be people who have something to say, and they make up the brunt of people who share their words with a wide audience. In short, the sheer volume of opinion has an effect on our psyche; repetition makes things credible Reiteration makes it seem like it comes from multiple sources when it may in fact all stem from the same place. One fact from the New Scientist has substantially less impact that a commonly held belief of third wave feminist theory, bandied about by all and sundry because it is easy to understand and latch onto, easy to repeat and share, easy to reiterate.

Why, just the other day I was chatting to a friend about nothing more profound than fancy dress and within the drop of a hat, she mentioned “cultural appropriation”. Not one year ago, that was a reasonably obscure idea to people of my age group and area, one that seemed to plop noisily out of the liberal progressive intersectional third wave feminists of California. My friend is no liberal progressive intersectional third wave feminist of California; chances are, she picked up the concept from Tumblr.

Undervaluing the effect of places like Tumblr is one of many ways you block yourself out of the modern world. Much as people like my dad might hope against hope that more people would look for evidence and backup evidence for assertions, the fact is that few people have ever looked for information in this way. Even now the internet makes it easy, people tend not to look for “evidence”, per se – only more people who agree with the off-the-wall theory.

The internet has improved the situation in one way. We are now taking comment from multiple, if not myriad, sources. Before, it was the one newspaper, perhaps two.

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