September 25, 2006 7:31 pm

Apostles of the blogosphere

A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend, who works in the “new media”, that I was to start a blog for FT.com. He was not impressed. “Blogging is over,” he informed me coldly.

I shrugged off the rebuke. After all blogs – personal online journals – are proliferating. According to Technorati, a firm that monitors such things, more than 50m blogs had been created by last month – and the number is doubling every six months.

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My doubts returned, however, when I saw an ominous message on the website of Britain’s main opposition party: “Conservative Party enters the blogosphere”. It announced that David Cameron, Tory leader, had started a blog. When the world’s least fashionable political party discovers a social trend, it is surely a sign that it is peaking.

Mr Cameron is far from alone. Over the summer a strange array of politicians started blogging. They included Hillary Clinton, who hopes to be the next president of America; Lionel Jospin, who hopes to be the next president of France; and Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is already president of Iran.

Political advisers around the world are clearly giving the same advice to their bosses. Blogging is meant to let politicians communicate directly with voters in a folksy style. In practice it makes aspiring statesmen sound like Mr Pooter, the character from Victorian fiction whose Diary of a Nobody was famous for its banality.

Mr Cameron’s entries from his recent visit to India have cheery little headlines, such as: “Going green in a Delhi tuk-tuk”. The Tory leader is shown around by a tour guide who is “a real character”; he sees the Delhi metro and pronounces it “amazing”. This kind of deadly dull stuff crosses the political divide. David Miliband, Britain’s clean-cut environment minister, got blogging earlier this year – claiming that this might help bridge “the growing and potentially dangerous gap between politicians and the public”. One of his most recent entries has the scintillating headline: “Three cheers for Brighton library”.

Mrs Clinton and Mr Jospin are saved from Pooterisms by their inability even to attempt chatty informality. By contrast, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s first blog was full of strange personal details. He notes, for example, that he did very well in his university entrance exams, in spite of suffering from a nosebleed. But after a promising debut in August, he has fallen silent – perhaps distracted by other tasks, such as governing the country and building a nuclear bomb.

Ferenc Gyurcsany , prime minister of Hungary, is more conscientious. He posts new comments on his blog most days – sometimes twice a day. He also has a dangerous frankness, making him a natural for the blogosphere. In a recent speech – now posted on his blog – he confessed to lying constantly to get elected; a revelation that prompted riots in Budapest.

Mr Gyurcsany’s blog is apparently a good read – if you have mastered Hungarian. But it is not clear that it has worked to his political advantage. In fact – for all the interest that consultants are showing in blogging – there is only one politician’s blog that has clearly had a real impact.

In France, Segolene Royal, who is likely to win the French Socialist party nomination to stand for the presidency next year, has been running a website and blog that has generated lots of interest and new support. Ms Royal puts essays on topics such as unemployment or immigration on her site and invites readers to post responses. She claims that she will then incorporate the best ideas into her platform for the presidency. It may be a gimmick, but it has helped her appear modern and in touch with the people – qualities in short supply in French politics.

The Royal experiment will certainly be watched with great interest by other politicians. But so far it seems to be a one-off.

That will hardly surprise the apostles of the blogosphere, however. They have always argued that blogging is politically significant, precisely because it is not a tool of the elite. Bloggers are, as a book on the phenomenon, An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds, puts it, holding the Goliaths of the media and the political world to account.

In the US, bloggers are claimed to have played a key role in forcing the resignation of Trent Lott as Senate majority leader in 2002, after he made comments that seemed to express nostalgia for the South in the days of segregation. It is argued that blogs kept the issue alive when the mainstream media was prepared to let it drop. The blogosphere is also said to have been crucial in mobilising support for Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, who defeated Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary in August.

In reality, it is hard to measure the precise impact of bloggers on such events. But the idea of an insurgent grass-roots movement, energised by folk tapping away at their computers, appeals to the romantic, anti-elitist strain in US politics. Many politicians in America and elsewhere clearly feel the need to pay their respects to the blogosphere – if only as a precaution.

It is not self-evident, however, that the blogosphere’s influence on politics is all for the good. A political consultant once complained that his bosses’ reliance on focus groups handed power to people who were prepared to sit around for hours talking about politics with strangers, in return for a free sandwich. Similarly if politics is increasingly shaped by the blogosphere, it will mean more power and influence for a sub-section of the population willing to waste hours trawling through dross on the internet.

Blogging as a medium has virtues: speed, spontaneity, interactivity and the vast array of information and expertise that millions of bloggers can bring together. But it also has its vices. The archetypal political blog favours instant response over reflection; commentary over original research; and stream-of-consciousness over structure.

Was that last judgment fair? Does it really follow logically from the rest of the argument? I am not sure and I have no time to think about it further. I have to get back to my blog.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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