Tuesday 18 December 2012

Defining Political Bloggers

It's roughly that time of year when list frenzy grips this blog, and 2012 is no exception. Very shortly - it might be this week, it might be next - the traditional list of the top 100 tweeting bloggers for 2012 will be published right here (you can reacquaint yourself with 2009 and 2010 here and here - I took a regretful break from blogging in 2011). No doubt many folk will be checking it out to see where they fall in the pecking order. Political social media-types are a vain lot and love to look at stuff about themselves.

However, compiling the list isn't as straight forward as it used to be. I am of the school that a blog is a website produced by an individual or collective, is updated regularly (i.e within the last 45 days), organised primarily around user-generated content, and has a comments facility. Back in December 2006 when this place was launched upon the world, blogs were a clearly defined and expanding part of the internet. They were easily distinguished from forums, mailing lists, chat rooms, usenet (remember usenet?) and your common or garden news and politics websites.

Things have got fudged in recent times. In 2010, I noted how that year's list had seen a greater preponderance of 'professionals' set up shop in the top 100 (i.e. established journalists with a blogging sideline), and the movement of some bloggers onto mainstream media platforms. The great blurring had begun. In 2012 this has become so common that it's grown increasingly difficult to separate bloggers from the media commentariat. For example, if you work for a newspaper as a lowly staffer, once your work appears in the online edition you are, for all intents and purposes, a blogger. If you're a big name columnist like Polly Toynbee or Simon Heffer, your weekly writing schedule is probably the same as it ever was - but again, their columns are now reproduced by their respective papers in the standard blogging 'read 'n' comment' format. They can now see what their audiences think, if they so choose.

I therefore think it's time we can start making some slippery distinctions among the sprawling bloggy/journo mess online political commentary has become.

The most basic distinction is between the 'independent' and the 'professional'. The latter comprises those who derive a large chunk of their personal income from their blogging activity, or are employed by a paper, magazine or broadcaster to blog - be it as an adjunct of their (journalistic) job, or as a regular commentator. Virtually all their blogging output is via the outlets these employers provide. Examples would be Guido, The Staggers, Comment is Free, C4 Fact Check, The Telegraph stable, etc. It includes established columnists who happen to have a comment box stuck under their regular pearls.

The indie blogger is more numerous but is generally less visible and influential, though it can include well-known politicians and political figures. They are either individuals or collectives who maintain their own domains, or have it provided by Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr, etc. and this is the main site of their blogging activity - despite occasionally providing the odd piece for the media, or writing for established party, union, social movement and campaigning sites. A bevy of such examples are here, every month.

And that brings me to the third category that awkwardly and annoyingly problematises the indie/professional boundary. Party blogs like Conservative Home, Labour List, and LibDem Voice, other politics blogs like Left Foot Forward and Progress; and campaigning sites such as the Taxpayers' Alliance, The F Word and ToUChstone are collaborative affairs. They sometimes have one or two paid staff (sometimes not), but rely mainly on a daily churn of voluntary contributions from people for whom this is likely their primary blogging outlet.

This makes no difference where the criteria for the upcoming tweeting bloggers list is concerned as that will be run on the old definition. As always it will include all the different kinds of political bloggers - no doubt subject to inevitable, unavoidable omissions, but in future it may allow for lists by category. Mainly because there's more of a chance of my getting a look-in on at least one of the lists.

These distinctions might have further uses. They could serve as a way into analysing political blogging from a sociological perspective, provide criteria for future annual prizes/contests that celebrate political blogging (no Orwell next year, and what happened to Total Politics?) and, best of all, give us indie bloggers a smug ideology of cool that decries our more successful brethren while we covet their plumb slots.

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