Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bloggers of the Roundtable

Today I had the distinct pleasure of appearing on "City Life," hosted by Mr. John McDonough, with a panel of Cliff Krieger (Right-Side-of-Lowell), Marie Sweeney (richardhowe.com), and George Anthes. The fellow bloggers in the peanut gallery were Shawn Ashe (Dracut Forum), Mimi Parseghian (Left in Lowell), Jackie Doherty, Gerry Nutter (Gerry Nutter's Lowell).

I would say we hit most of the topics that you'd expect to come up (role of blogs in society, value of blogs in society, legitimacy of anonymity for bloggers/commenters, distinction between journalists and citizen journalists, etc.) No major surprises there.

I sensed there was some agreement in the room when I talked about the superiority of New Media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter) to Not-as-New Media (e-mail, cellphones) as a way for people to keep in touch. Marie Sweeney talked about running into people who seemed to be fully caught up on her life (Facebook lurkers) and I talked about catching up with old friends with whom I could've sworn I had *lost* contact, but who I found out had been checking in from time to time on this blog to see what I was up to.

I think there's a simple reason for this: To read peoples' Facebook updates and blog posts is passive, whereas e-mailing and phone calling are active, and thus require a higher threshold for motivation. With the ubiquity of smart phones, anyone waiting at a bus stop, the dry cleaner's, stuck in traffic (as passengers, I hope!) is able to quickly *pop in* to Facebook or a blog to give a quick look. That look might only take seconds, but it accomplishes the goal of checking in and it doesn't beg reciprocity. And that's the whole key. Any type of back-and-forth discussion or relationship via e-mail or phone that requires one party to *return the volley* before the other hits back is, just like a rally on a ping-pong table, eventually bound to fail and die out. With blogs and Facebook, no one has that problem. I can sort of check out your new Facebook pics or status updates, you can sort of check out my blog, and the result is that we basically know what the other is doing but without the reciprocity norm and incumbent feeling of guilt when that e-mail that you *meant* to get back to starts getting staler and staler in your inbox...and then you feel sheepish about replying so late at all, so you just delete it.

Another point about New Media, which is one that Dick Howe and many others have made before, is that the idea that online interaction comes at the expense of *real* interaction is, at the end of the day, bogus. In fact, the two can feed off each other quite nicely, and create what a sociologist might call a positive social capital spiral -- I may have first gotten to know you online, it helped break the ice when we talked in person, we can reinforce our connection online (even in simple ways, such as *liking* each others' Facebook statuses), and then we can plan social events together. The beauty of that one is that we can reinforce the bond even when we're not physically co-located. I gave the example of a servicemember on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan posting images of his "meet-and-greets" with village elders in the desert. I now have a better picture (literally) of what he's up to, and it's the first thing we'll talk about when we bump into each other in the states down the road.

Shawn Ashe talked about how people in online communities like to reinforce what they already think as opposed to searching out new thought challenges. There's probably some truth to that in other venues (look at any market data about who watches Fox News) but there's another element to online discussions that merits mention: the way civility can quickly disappear online. Frankly, this is why I find in-person discussions of serious matters FAR more enjoyable. In person, we have tone, we have context, and we have socially conditioned limits as to what we'll say when we disagree with someone, and how. That typically gets lost online. In fact, if you follow things like Lowell Sun Topix or even the more respectable local blogs, you can see that 80%+ of online argumenters resort to ad hominem attacks or gross straw man mischaracterizations of their antagonists' arguments. As a result, I almost never pick fights online. That's not blog-specific: Even in work situations, if I don't like the direction an e-mail thread starts moving in, I reach for the phone. If there's still tension, I go right to the person. Without fail, that extra level of personalization de-escalates whatever little misunderstanding arose between people behind screens who lacked the benefit of tones, body language, and non-verbal cues.

One last point -- EVERYONE in the room agreed that there's information saturation on the Web, and a daily struggle by all of us to sort and prioritize what we can and will make time for. Mimi pointed out that Lowell probably has one of the highest community-themed bloggers-to-residents ratios of any city in the country (Neither of us has stats, but Mimi, I'd back you up on this hunch), and that the bloggers are mutually supportive.

My only advice to anyone getting started in the blogosphere, and hoping to catch hold of some type of audience, is this -- have a niche. At the end of the segment, several of us sang praises for Rob Mills' excellent police blog and for the way Mr. Mill City pulls off the informative-smart-witty trifecta in Daily Show sort of way (you can go there for real news, but you'll still come away laughing). The "food blog" and "the music blog" were also mentioned (and yes, both are way much more than just either of those things). Rodney Elliott and Jackie Doherty are leading the way among the City Council and School Committee, respectively, for blogging. Right-Side-of-Lowell gives you the best international coverage and perspective, while Richardhowe.com is the best single-source I turn people to who are curious about understanding contemporary or historical Lowell. Gerry Nutter and Left in Lowell serve up a lot of Inside Baseball about city politics that you're not going to get anywhere else. Corey Sciuto brings up some of the best questions about urban design and city planning. LDNA and other neighborhood sites give a hyper-local perspective.

Anyway, you get the idea. The little differences among each of the blogs helps them stand out on their own, and the reader is left to pick and choose as suits his or her tastes.

The blogosphere is an integral part of this city's life, and it ain't going away. It will morph and mature, but as the saying goes, with technology there are only two types of people -- martyrs and zealots.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

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