Feb 13, 2006

On Desi Blogging

I have been reminded a number of times, by a number of people, that I should be careful about what I write in these pages. I laughed at them in the beginning, thinking that there are few (but much appreciated!) folks tuning in regularly, and I can't foresee that changing drastically.

However, with search engines like Google and the wide array of special-interest list servs, it is generally pretty easy to get more people to tune into your site once, when you know what buttons to push (i.e. write something timely and that has a kick). And with that power, as Peter Parker's Uncle Ben told him, comes great responsibility. Or does it? I've been thinking a bit about the whole blogging with a consciousness thing, especially as the number of blogs, even those that are just desi/brown in focus, has mushroomed.

Self-publishing has been going on forever, and is generally a very good thing, taking the control of content out of the hands of the mainstream production and dissemination circuits who focus more on the bottom line than the fine line between art and a simple commodity. I'm old enough to remember the explosion of 'zines in the 90s and went through the community literary scene when self-made/bound/(sometimes) handwritten poetry chapbooks were also in vogue (and still are in some corners of La Boheme). Those chapbooks were one part mini-rebellion to the concept that publishing poetry is a losing proposition, and one part the DIY spirit that makes artists and other free spirits so vital in our overly specialized and technologically dependent world.

Self-publishing can be empowering, it can be honest, and it can focus on views and news that may not be widely covered or coveted in the mainstream. It can be flippant, irreverent, and profound. Fox News can be profane, but not really any of the other things. When the market guides your decisions, you're no longer independent.

But the difference between the old school paper and ink publishing and self-production and dissemination in weblogs is that anyone with time and internet access can create a site, and more importantly, anyone with internet access can tune in. A homemade 'zine or poetry chapbook will not go nearly as far as a home"made" weblog can. Production cost for the former can be quite prohibitive when distribution is a question; you can't drive demand from referrals alone; and folks have to see what they are getting before they are willing to "buy" it (with money or their hearts and minds). But a blog is like a candy shop that gives out free samples all day. You can stay, linger, move on. Get addicted.

Weblogs are generally opinions, mixed with some research to support the arguments being made by the blogger. However, blogs have begun to take on a more serious place in the business of news in the past year. Mainstream news sites, television channels refer to their own "blogs" of news, and have even occasionally turned to the blogs to see what the "blogoverse" is thinking/saying about a particular issue or event, in real time. "Let's see what the bloggers are saying" is quickly replacing "Let's go to the video tape" as a favorite cut in broadcast news.

I have some very keen problems with blogging, especially in niche markets like the South Asian community.

1) No matter what we think, most bloggers are not journalists. They often just play them on the 'net. We haven't been trained to idealize "objectivity", we don't get paid to do this (though by the looks of it, I'm sure that quite a few are earning a salary at the same time that they are blogging), and we are often not fit to appear in front of cameras. In other words, while browsing, the casual reader should keep in mind that it's not the "news" page of the paper that you're reading, but the op-eds and the letters to the editor. There are many personal biases built into the information product, even moreso than usual.

2) This brings us to the fact that there is no code of ethics for bloggers. Netiquette is really not a code of ethics, but rather more of a hip way to squash someone that pisses you off. So anything goes, and some folks can get pretty nasty for undisclosed reasons (or sometimes just because they're having a bad day). A biased writer may not be obvious in a post itself, and her work can be picked up as "objective reporting" by the casual reader and battle its way into conventional wisdom on a topic, especially when subsequent web searches ring up the slanted piece and unwitting readers stumble onto it without the context of the blog, the writer, and sometimes even the facts themselves.

3) Speaking of which, who are the fact-checkers? What kind of research are we talking about? Specifically, push-button publishing makes it infinitely easier than ever before to just write up what you think, or what you heard, and pass it off as fact, especially when you juxtapose that with "real" news reporting and snippets of articles from here, there, and everywhere.

Moreover, I'd wager that the "research" is more often than not, internet searches. How much history, fact, and nuance is missing from the 'net about so many events, even in recent memory? I have experienced and witnessed enough in my handful of years in the social change arena in NYC to know that much of the Asian American organizing, history, struggles, triumphs, and challenges have not really been documented anywhere, let alone on the web. (Which, as an aside, is why it is important to support something like Asian American Movement webzine, and to get more representative voices to join their collective).

Additionally, even when something is documented and linkable on the web, who is to say that that piece (often an academic or a journalist) is balanced, correct, and has weighed the different perspectives before choosing one in their (re)telling of history?

4) Where is the accountability? Many bloggers are anonymous, using nom-de-plumes, or just make things up about themselves. If we can make things up about our own identities, what makes you think that we can't make things up about the news, the world, and what's happening out there? And what makes us believe that there aren't hidden agendas guiding attack-posts (which can't even pretend to be investigative, since they don't pick up the phone and talk to people before writing about them), especially concerning community-based organizations, public individuals, and other matters of significance?

Aside from the occasional thorn-in-the-side commenter, who is going to call them out on matters of fairness and transparency in their writing? Would a likely response be: "It's my personal journal/weblog, and I can write what I want"? I think that I've read that flavor of response fairly regularly on some of the sites out there.

Even if there is dissent by way of an engaged readership, who really reads the comments with that level of scrutiny? It's like reading the corrections box in a newspaper for the news the day before. Some of us do it, but most do not. And therefore, aside from egregious errors that are often pointed out and corrected in the body of the text, the post stands as the principle communication about any particular topic, and that's what gets read the most. Not to mention that that's what gets picked up by newsreaders and syndication feeds.

Which may bring us to the ultimate question about desi blogs, specifically when they purport a "community" perspective. Where is the line between sharing your opinion, and shaping your post so that others believe it, and therefore, adopt your particular perspective about the community? Are blogs set up to inform people about news (even though they usually just "report" on news that's already been reported on in an actual media source) or encourage a dialogue to explore issues that the news presents? Or are their principle purpose to build a chorus to ultimately feed egos?

While the advent of push-button publishing has made it possible for anyone to share their opinions, their routines, and the minutiae of their days, it has also allowed for people with opinions about the world to have access to an audience. Technology has opened many doors this way, and created a form of populist media that has become very popular, but we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that bloggers are everymen/women who represent anyone other than themselves, and also to recognize that more often than not, blogs are far less about populist media than popularity games, and that the currency of truth is not measured in hits per day but rather in track record of experience, quality of research, depth of analysis, and honesty about shortcomings, failings, and mistakes.

Maybe this is a good place for an example. I have been guilty, myself, of stating that some sites are a good source for desi news. I have begun to check myself, explain that I look at these sites to learn about things that are going on that I may not have heard, and then try to formulate my own opinion about that event/incident/issues/organizations. While I value some of the opinions, I still treat these sites like an advanced and fairly thorough clipping service more than a place to actively and safely develop my own thinking and perception of the issues raised by the writers.

However, if someone were to begin reading a blog as a primary source for their understandingof a community and/or issues that pertain to it, they could be led astray, especially by folks who are on a soapbox about their perspective, or their authenticity, but don't have much more to back it up than a lot of hours in front of a computer screen and, more often than not, minimal interactions with the subjects of their posts. I know that I've been guilty of the same in the past, and have tried to remedy what I could when I was reminded of the flaws. But others don't do that, and their pieces remain up, virtually unchallenged (especially if it's about community organizations or initiatives, when the principals of those entities seldom have the time to respond to misrepresentation (or no representation) in the media, let alone the blogosphere). Then, the next time that someone searches about agency X or person Y, what they get is a source that is often an under- or even un-researched polemic that hasn't even been seen, let alone replied to, by the person/group in question. Is that fair? Perhaps one could argue that the comments section more democratizes the process, or someone else could argue that the process doesn't have to be democratic because blogs are private viewpoints, but is that really true anymore? What's private when everyone can read it?

Moreover, some writers have developed a false sense of authority (equating and conflating the depth of their archives with past scholarship), egotism, and self-righteousness. Criticism is handled harshly, with the echoes of casual readers and avid addicts ringing in that closed courtyard of "public" opinion called the comment area. They zealously guard their fifteen minutes of fame, earned for timing and cleverness in the marketing of a product that the frenzied desi masses are hungry to gobble up. But at the end of the day, how many of the sites will actually make a difference, and how many will survive the inevitable fade from relevance that dooms most ephemeral fads? And who really cares, anyway?


flygirl said...

don't you love time differences?

very good brown man, pertinent. i've been guilty of the same (many points above), and it is a way to get an insight into the state of communties you're interested in/subscribe to. but, take ye ye proverbial pinch of salt.

on the other hand, bah! i say to you, for i am a blogging pundit, cower before the majesty of my punditry!

Rage said...

fg: thanks for the comments. yah. this is actually a post i'd abandoned months ago... felt like a good time to finish. Speaking of which - it's rather early here.

Please, please share your punditry (un)pestered. *low bow*

Rage said...

Interesting piece on ethics and blogging, at the Reporters without Borders site.

sk said...

Very relevant post, given that every second person has a blog (or two)going.

someone else said...

um, i never do any of those things.


Anyway, one thing I will say is that although I agree with you about the reliability of any individual blog or set of blogs, I think the fundamental error that people (not you necessarily) make in looking at something like the blogosphere, the media, or wikipedia is to believe that an individual can produce "accurate" results. It's the collaborative effort with self-policing within the commmunity that, overall, results in a net increase of "knowledge" (which i define as a closer correspondence between our ideas about the world and the material reality of it--including the immaterial, like ideas). This applies to scientific endeavors too.

Now, if you want to say that the self-policing of those different systems work to varying degrees of effectiveness on varying topics (Judith miller on WMD; wikipedia on that guy that got blasphemed or any topic that's not likely to attract a lot of attention or IS likely to polarize; the class, race, and especially national origin and gender biases of the blogosphere; the class, race, national origin, and gender biases of the 19th century scientific community, etc.) that's fine. But the finger needs to be pointed to more than just the blogosphere. The great revealed truth is that there is no one single source for revealed truth and perhaps no single revealed truth at all.

*ducks fundamentalists*

Also, I too am a blogging pundit, so cower before the majesty of my punditry as well! and my amateur epistemological practice (i have an office in flushing--tuesday and thursdays, 9 to 3)! I will leave both of those as unsourced statements in the spirit of this piece :)

someone else said...

on a side note, i just learned that one way you can tell if you're hungry is when the code letters it tells you to type in (in this case laamrjub) remind you of mithai (in this case gulab jumun).


Rage said...

Thanks for reading. One of the reasons that this post is unsourced, as mentioned now by two readers, is because I don't have the time nor inclination to get into a long flame war with people over this piece. I'm fairly sure that my perspective isn't particularly unique, but I also don't think that it's particularly welcome in some circles.

Anyway, I'm not purporting some universal truth - just that there's a lot of bullshit out there that poses as truth, and some blogs are more centrally responsible for misinformation than other sources, not to mention that there isn't a sufficient check in place when there aren't enough questioning voices, or when the reaction to criticism is over-defensiveness.

Of course - the same can be said about this post I suppose - but that's part of the reason why I'm not naming names or sites: I don't want to perpetuate the spread of potential misinformation either, since this is my gut feeling after reading some of the desi blogs (in particular) over the past few months. I'm just hoping to engage some folks on what I find to be troubling.

The truth is - when you have an audience, you have a responsibility. And if you aren't particularly interested in that responsibility, which is fine, folks should at least be mindful while they're reading. I'm only concerned that people (readers) aren't as careful as they could be. Honestly, I could give a fuck about the writers.

Now, about those mithai...

Chai said...

hmmm, totally agree with you on the alleged community voice. that is my main *concern* with sepia mutiny. i don't think it is a main voice (especially when 5 our 6 of the writers are male, heterosexual, middle to upper class, north indians). kinda bugs that they purport to be all things south asian and don't take accountability for their actions and say---whatever, we are a group blog.

IMHO: um, no, you aren't. you aren't a group blog when you get over 1million hits. kinda bugs. but, i love certain writers. i love the fact that people find out interesting things re: south asia, england, and america. i also love the fact that people can debate their identity. but, yeah....

/end rant.

someone else said...

no, no i wasn't talking about you, silly. i was talking about my comment about how i'm a blogging pundit. I didn't source it (even though it's still true), unlike flygirl.

I'm a wonder at communication skills ;)

Rage said...

chai: Well. Since *you* named names, yeah: it is one of the blogs I had in mind. I think that the concept of the space is great, I think that some of the stuff is quite clever, and it's a fun place to get that trivial fix for the day. But I have issues with it, I think that the bias is clear as day, and I've taken to just checking out when I see things go down the predictable islamophobic, self-congratulatory, chauvinist, centrist, ADD(ist?), yadda yadda yadda path. It actually gets painfully predictable, including the discussions on the comments page.

I don't want to hate, and I think s.e. had this battle a while back, but it just kills me sometimes. I see the readership as an interested bunch of people who are cyber-literate, and could make a difference, but I just feel like the forum is at best wasted, and worse than that... it could be seen as some kind of desi central, which it really isn't, save for pop-cultural commentary and the occasional incisive post.

I want dialogue, debate, and community. I don't feel that there. I feel like I'm part of a really small minority. I've been feeling like that in many spaces lately, though. Maybe I need to go to a conference or something. :)

Anyway - thanks for reading, and best of luck with the bar!

someone else: you inspired me to write a rageful response. it was cathartic, so i'm going to continue to think the comment was towards me. nothing personal, of course.

Chai said...

rage: wasn't hating on se either, but believe you and me, many people are on the same wave length.

haha, you are most welcome! i like your words. they resonate with me.

thanks for the bar exam luck. :)

p.s. i like names

Rage said...

This is just another example of shutting down discussion around an issue of interest to someone (albeit possibly a troll) who doesn't just say "y'all are awesome."

And it's more of that North bias, too.

Manish said...

Good criticism, thanks. However,

I don't have the time nor inclination to get into a long flame war with people over this piece.

is why

This is just another example of shutting down discussion around an issue of interest to someone (albeit possibly a troll) who doesn't just say "y'all are awesome."

happened. Glad you understand.

Manish said...

especially when 5 our 6 of the writers are male, heterosexual, middle to upper class, north indians

Just to correct the record, four are North Indians, two are Malayalees; the demographics correlate strongly with blogger demographics; and as you know, I reject expropriation of private blogs. We don't represent anyone but ourselves and we've never claimed otherwise.

Anonymous said...

the writers are male, heterosexual, middle to upper class, north indians

Um, Chai and Rage...for people who are so vocal on being enlightened and fair and conscious, it's rather lame of you to conflate Gujuratis (Abhi and Sajith) and Punjabis (Manish and Ennis). So what if both are in the north of India-- they are hardly the same.

You can diss Sepia however you like, but they must be doing something right...they wouldn't have so many readers if they weren't.

Here's what I can't get over; not everyone thinks the way you both do or wants to read what you think is important. Did you ever stop to think that if these blogs you are too ____ to name were to conform to your needs, people like me wouldn't like them?

There's a blog for everyone. If you're dissatisfied, then don't just talk about DIY, do it. If there actually are other people who feel like you do, they'll come read you and then you'll prove your point with more than just an unsourced post.

Rage said...


I stand by what I've written. I don't think this is a matter of representation in your demographics. It's just an observation that blogs get away with a lot more than other forms of media, and frankly, more people pay attention to what you put up. Should they be more careful? Clearly. And should you be held responsible for assumptions that readers make based on what they read on your private blog? Maybe not. I'm not going to lecture about responsibility - all I know is that I've read some things that are questionable. If y'all can conscience that on your site, that's your business, and I'll comment on and off site when I can. As long as we can be civil, perhaps we can even see eye-to-eye in some places where we disagree.

Anonymous: You missed the point entirely: there is clearly a dividing line between dominant Indian identities such as Panjabi and Gujarati and other members of the desi community. But I'm not going to sit here and repeat it. If you don't understand, it's not my problem.

And numbers don't always signify what you want them to. Sure, a good package is popular. That doesn't mean it is beyond reproach or comment. Not to mention that rather than be negative and distracting on the respective sites, I decided to write about a larger issue of which Sepia Mutiny is an example. Just as the writers on that blog comment about things, I think it's perfectly fine for others to comment about the way that they do it. What kind of double standard are you suggesting? Read these sites, but dare not think about it more critically? Sorry dude/tte - that may be your m.o., but I like to more critically engage the media and inputs that I digest.

And your point about not everyone thinking the way I do? Please. Are you telling me, or reassuring yourself that the majority of readers out there are content with fluff? I'm not asking anyone to conform to my "needs" fool - I don't get my "needs" addressed through any blog.

The point is that blogs are severely limited and limiting - and that at the end of the day - it's not so much about who writes a better blog. It's about the difference between commenting and reporting. The difference between watching and doing.

Clearly the distinctions are lost on you - I don't need to source a piece that is more general observation about a trend that I find limiting and distressing, particularly as a community worker. Y'all who just write and read (specifically the commenters on these blogs) could be more involved, and do more. But I guess straying away from the site long enough to give me advice may be your way of doing that.

cm said...

hey there
i'm a sepia mutiny reader and i totally agree with your analysis of their take on the blogging for the community. i am always suprised when i come across the "THIS IS MY PRIVATE SITE" stuff when the bloggers are going on to conferences and making commentary to newspapers about how their site is a display of the "the community" in action or something to that effect. and i am most turned off by the mis-use of the term south asian and their perpetual denial of indian privilege on their site. i am just WAITING for a muslim to join their ranks, or perhaps that could get too cantankerous for their "we are indian- americans!!!!" agenda. -- ok my rant is over. thanks for reminding me why i need to stick to more objective sources for all things news-worthy.

Rage said...

Thanks for commenting, cm. And thanks for seeing where I'm coming from. It's not just SM, but when you're the biggest, everyone is watching. And when you don't want to take on that responsibility, well, don't be surprised when other people ask questions.