Of blogs and vlogs and the deliberative quandary

Blogs are everywhere.

If, for example, you didn’t quite make it to Switzerland again this year for the annual World Economic Forum, you still had the opportunity to follow the proceedings and contribute to discussions online via the Forum’s blog (www.forumblog.org).

Beyond global politics and prosperity, the proliferation of Internet blogs extends across most all topics and tastes. Time Magazine declared 2004 the year of the blog (in part due to their significance at the American presidential nomination conventions). New blogs are constantly being created: one recent survey suggests that perhaps as many as eight million Americans have one, catering to more than 30 million readers in the U.S. alone.

So what, in fact, is a blog – or web log, as it’s formally known? Essentially, it’s an online platform for publishing, communicating and discussing that allows “bloggers” to have their say on any given issue or theme deemed worthy of attention. More recently, “vloggers” have boarded this virtual train, adding a video dimension that may offer content ranging from a corporate focus (Microsoft operates a vlog for software designers which, according to BusinessWeek, attracts 900,000 viewers a month) to the provocative and downright absurd (examples are left to the reader’s imagination).

The growth of blogs and vlogs is in many ways akin to the open source software movement. Aided by expanding broadband, individuals are able to network more freely, join like-minded groups and express themselves in innovative and uninhibited ways. Not surprisingly, blogging is viewed by many as a grassroots function, often with the aim of circumventing mainstream traditional power structures in both industry and government.

As with music and movies, some of these traditional structures perceive the threat and are responding in kind. Apple Computers has launched legal action against a long-time blogger (thinksecret.com) with a history of releasing new product information in advance of the company. The case raises fundamental questions about freedom of expression and proprietary knowledge in a virtual world – one such question being whether bloggers are to enjoy the safeguards of journalistic activity accorded to those in more mainstream publishing outlets.

In the political world, blogging may be indicative of how declining voter turnout need not necessarily translate into widespread apathy. Choose a key public policy issue of the day and it would not be hard to find a blog devoted to it. And with the rising interest in e-democracy, the potential of blogging for partisanship and policy-making is beginning to attract serious study.

One of the first serious attempts to examine the democratic potential of blogging comes from a leading British think tank, the Hansard Society. This group created a citizens’ jury to analyse the perceptions of potential bloggers and the potential for their usage and integration in more formal democratic processes. In fact, part of the impetus for studying the politics of blogging in Britain came from Members of Parliament who have recently created their own blogs.

The results of the study (available at www.hansardsociety.org.uk) are decidedly mixed. Many participants felt that blogs seem more devoted to specialized constituencies than to the mainstream. Perhaps the most important observation, however, is that “a higher frequency of broadcasting was taking place rather than two-way dialogue.” In other words, blogs are more about publishing and communicating than listening and debating.

The central message behind blogging’s appeal cannot be ignored; many people want to have input on issues that matter to them. Yet the blogging experience to date would also seem to underscore perhaps the greatest challenge to digital democracy: namely, finding ways to widen public participation online in a conversational and deliberative manner.

In a manner similar to multi-channel service delivery strategies – mixing online, telephone and in person options – the challenge may well be to find ways to deploy blogs or similar tools in concert with other mechanisms. The government of Ontario, for example, has announced a new initiative to engage youth in democratic reform. For this target audience, blogging would seem an essential tool to generate ideas, even as other forums may well be required to deliberate, compromise and ultimately promote workable solutions.

In a related initiative of sorts, a group of Scottish parliamentarians is undertaking a consultative effort with schools to engage students in building civic interest and generating new ideas. The process will blend school visits and in-class discussions with the well-established multi-media dimension of the Scottish authority that includes live web-cams, archived films and online discussion forums (www.holyrood.tv).

In sum, blogging nicely personifies the Internet’s potential for empowerment and creativity. Integrating this potential, however, within more mainstream and formalized governance systems remains a complex, contested and ongoing challenge. 051361

Jeffrey Roy (roy@management.uottawa.ca) is Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and Visiting Professor at the University of Victoria.