Saturday, 2 January 2010

What Is Good Blogging?

My award by Crispian Jago as Pod Delusion Blogger of 2009 is as good excuse as any for me to put down some personal and subjective thoughts as to what constitutes good blogging.

(By the way, one should treat Crispian's kind and unwarranted gesture with more than a pinch of sodium chloride. I regard each of the bloggers I mention below, and all the others on Crispian's list, as more deserving of the Pod Delusion award.)

In putting down these thoughts, I will draw primarily from the skeptical bloggers I know and admire, but I believe my points are of more general application.

My starting point is that many good bloggers would also excel in other media.

For example, Crispian Jago himself is simply an outstanding satirist and should be snapped up by Private Eye, whilst the respective writers of Gimpyblog and The Quackometer should be hired to do investigative writing by any quality newspaper.

Similarly, Graeme Archer of Centre Right is a thoughtful and elegant prose stylist and would grace any serious publication, as would the relentlessly analytic The Heresiarch.

In all these cases - and many others - it can be fairly said that these are good writers and creators who happen also to be good bloggers.

In this respect they complement bloggers such as Ben Goldacre and Petra Boynton, who are established and skilled writers in other media.

However, in my view, not all good writers are capable of being good bloggers. And, if I am correct, the qualities of good blogging must thereby be different from good writing generally.

So, as well as good writing, I think good blogging tends to have one or more of three particular qualities.

First, good blogs are independent.

This independence means that one can, for example, provide a timely and thorough response to some new piece of information, or give an insight into a breaking story, or gloss or analyse a matter of widening concern.

Independence is the benefit (most) blogs have from not being tied to the publication cycles of mainstream media; and such blogs benefit also from not being subject to internal editorial, advertising, and (indeed) legal considerations.

As soon as something is worth blogging about, it can simply be blogged about.

This goes for Gimpyblog having patiently unearthed and sourced some scandal regarding CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), or for Crispian getting a new idea about how to satirise the world around him, or for Petra responding to some silliness in the media on reporting sex and relationships.

Independence - or autonomy - from editorial or commercial pressures also means that one does not have to blog if the blogpost is not worth the effort or would not add anything new; bloggers are free to blog or not to blog, and so are never reduced to "churnalism".

Of course, the speediness of blogging is not an entirely new phenomenon: in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pamphleteers such as William Cobbett or William Hazlitt also quickly self-published their reactions and critiques.

What to my mind differentiates modern bloggers from being merely regenerated pamphleteers is what I see as the second quality of good blogging: sourcing and linking.

Linking to the source information to which one is referring effectively elevates the good blogger from being a mere internet pamphleteer: the reader can go and check for themselves.

Again, sourcing and linking are not novel: they are the hallmarks of any competent scholarship. The links of a good blogpost should stand up to as much scrutiny as the footnotes of an academic monograph.

However, instead of being footnotes at the source of a printed page, and having efficacy only if one also happened to have access to an appropriate research library to check them, sourcing and linking brings the hard tests of scholarship to non-academic writing.

It is for this reason that I think phenomena as different as "churnalism" and CAM have been found wanting as written communication becomes more internet based: both will tend to suffer once assertions can be tested against original material.

Accordingly, there can be no real surprise that, whilst skeptical bloggers thrive (with writers of the calibre of Ben Goldacre, Gimpy, Andy Lewis (of the Quackometer), Professor David Colquhoun, Martin Robbins (of Lay Science), and so on), the entire complementary and alternative health communities have not produced a single blogger of any note.

In my opinion, the combination of speediness and linking explains why skeptics naturally gravitate towards blogging: independent and source-based writing will always attract the intelligent and deter the credulous.

For me, the third and ultimate quality of good blogging is originality.

Regardless of independence, and regardless of any sourcing and linking, the best blogs do things not to be found in mainstream media: if they were, there would probably be no need to blog.

My two favourite bloggers (er, after Crispian, of course) are Petra Boynton and Jourdemayne, both of whom feature on Crispian's list.

Petra draws from her background as an academic and mainstream media writer to provide compelling and highly-interesting blogs on sex and relationships - issues which are usually badly dealt with by squeamish, sensationalist, or smirking journalists. Until I came across Petra's Blog, I had no idea that these fundamental subjects could be written about in such an intelligent and constructive way.

Jourdemayne (whose blog is not as well known as it should be) draws her insights from a different background: profound historical knowledge of the extraordinary things people have believed in. She then uses this to contextualise more contemporary matters.

But all the bloggers I have mentioned have the quality of originality: providing new information or new insights, and often both.

Indeed, many bad science and skeptic bloggers are necessarily original, as they are consciously correcting the omissions of mainstream media in covering science and other issues.

Originality, like good writing, is not the preserve of bloggers; but each good blogger is, in my view, someone who adds something new: informing the interested reader, or forcing the reader to reflect.

Of course in all this I am biased: I am a blogger; I know personally many (but not all) of the bloggers I mention above; and I share many of their concerns and have learned much from their insights and the knowledge they have shared.

But if this blogpost is just an exercise in bias, the reader can simply decide never to visit this site again; if the links do not stand up to my assertions, then the reader can discount what I have to say; and if this blogpost says nothing new or original, then the reader knows that I have failed against my own ultimate criterion.

And in each of these cases, the reader can just move on - free of any charge and obligation - to other bloggers who are independent and original, and whose sources do stand up to scrutiny, for - in my opinion - such bloggers are the good bloggers, and should always be preferred.


No purely anonymous comments will be published: always use a name for ease of reference by others.


jdc325 said...

I touched on the ethics of blogging in a post I wrote about Online Debate and Criticism, and linked to this report of a survey of bloggers.

For non-personal bloggers, attribution and truth-telling were most highly valued, followed by minimizing harm, then accountability. I think this is linked to your comments on sourcing and linking - because providing sources and links are (in my opinion) essential for attribution, and valuable for confirming the "truth-telling" aspect. If you do not cite your sources or link to them, then readers cannot check whether your characterisation of what you discuss is fair and accurate.

Cubik's Rube said...

Independent: check, and sourcing and linking I'm pretty good at, on those occasions where I'm actually saying anything purportedly based on fact. I guess originality is my most significant stumbling block, as well as basic proactivity so that I'm not just talking to myself.

I suppose one thing I tend to think about more myself is actually making my stuff fun to read. I guess that comes under the fundamental category of being a decent writer, though, which has long been a lofty ambition I struggle towards.

Andrew said...

I think the comments field under blog posts is important. They tend to be more open and at the same time less cluttered by ill-thought out knee-jerk reactions than the equivalents on news websites. Moreover, many of the comments are from bloggers and the authors often contribute to the discussions. That makes it hard to regularly enjoy a blog without getting to know its owner a little. For that reason, it's probably impossible and arguably meaningless for anyone to be truly unbiased in selecting their favourite blogs.

Pam Nash said...

Interesting post - I started blogging on New Year's Eve, so this is good advice. Thanks!

Christine Michael said...

Congratulations on your award and I'd agree with the qualities of good blogging that you list. I don't understand though why so many bloggers are anonymous. It doesn't seem quite to fit with the other principles of good blogging. After all, I can't post this comment without declaring myself.

Dr Aust said...

Christine - can't remember when we last discussed the various whys of anonymous blogging, but major ones are:

(i) humourless employers (for work bloggers, e.g. in medical blogs, or see the Night Jack case) and:

(ii) mad internet trolls (avoiding of).

In the case of many work bloggers, the anonymity is why they are able to tell you about the reality of their job; (i) above. Without the anonymity they would be far more constrained.

The second reason ("troll/nutter avoidance") is common in sceptical / bad science blogging, I think. Though there the anonymity is pretty relative, in general. For instance, noted US sceptical blogger-and-doctor Orac's real identity is easy to find on the internet with a minimal amount of digging. As the Night Jack case showed, one has to be quite rigorous about excluding any potentially identifying info to remain really anonymous. But even a partial anonymity filters out a certain amount of abuse and/or nuisance.

jdc325 said...

@Andrew wrote: "I think the comments field under blog posts is important."
I'd agree with that. Here's something I wrote just a couple of weeks ago: "I keep an open comment thread on each and every post – blog comments for me are a form of peer review." I actively invite corrections and criticism on my blog, as I am more interested in improving the substance of what I write than maintaining the illusion that I am already well-informed. I always find it interesting (as well as frustrating) when people refuse to allow constructive critical comment on their blogs.

Regarding anonymity of bloggers: Not wishing to have details of one’s identity available to every angry weirdo on the internet is one reason to blog anonymously. Making use of anonymity to blow the whistle on malpractice and corruption is another. Then there’s avoiding giving the impression that you speak for your employer. Or you may simply wish to avoid upsetting or annoying friends, family, or your employer. I would also argue that it is what is said that is important, rather than who it is that says it.

I gave up blogging anonymously and put my full name and competing interests on the "About" page of my blog, but only because I figured the hassle I would get from losing my anonymity was no worse than the hassle of constantly answering questions from people who were more interested in my identity than my thoughts. If I still had humourless employers (as I did when I began blogging), then I would probably still blog anonymously.

TK said...

It is interesting that the CAM world has failed to produce notable bloggers but I suspect this is because they think they don't need to.

The kind of blogging we do is investigative and sometimes critical, examining claims.

CAM, like religion, doesn't often feel the need for self-examination, and promotion by non-professionals tends to come in the form of testimonials and sharing of experience, sometimes on forums rather than in extended analyses.

CAMmers, believers in the supernatural and others of that ilk are often reactive rather than pro-active, defending themselves against our criticisms or describing rather than examining.

I started blogging last year and I'm proud to have joined the ranks, if that doesn't sound too soppy.

jdc325 said...

Interesting comment from TK: "CAM, like religion, doesn't often feel the need for self-examination..."
This is something I've written about on a number of occasions. I think that Ben Goldacre perhaps put it best when he wrote that: “The food supplement pill industry is phenomenally powerful, extremely lucrative and incredibly influential, but it has shown itself to be philosophically and commercially incapable of critical self-appraisal.” [My italics.]

Christine Michael said...

Thank you very much for your thoughtful responses to my comments on anonymity; I don't blog (yet) and I'm sure this issue is often aired, so thanks for your patience. I can quite see the 'troll avoidance' argument (especially when you see the comments some of the 'bad science' bloggers get, and if you're blogging on a topic that raises irrational passions it makes sense. I can't quite agree though with 'it's what I say, not who I am that matters'. Perhaps I'm just diehard old media but I like to know context, eg whether the piece I'm reading was published in the Daily Mail or The Guardian (although, bad example, shame on me if I couldn't tell straightaway).
Also, although I do quite see the 'not wanting to upset family or employers' argument, I can't help but feel that if you have issues with someone or some body that you can only air anonymously, this isn't very healthy for your working or family life.
So if and when I do start to blog, I'd hope to do so openly. But don't quote me. And thank you for publishing my comments on this very illustrious blog.

Julian Dobson said...

Thank you for this - I think there's a lot of good sense here, and long may you thrive.

Dr Aust said...

Christine wrote:

"Also, although I do quite see the 'not wanting to upset... employers' argument, I can't help but feel that if you have issues with someone or some body that you can only air anonymously, this isn't very healthy for your working ... life."

Heh. As Hunter S. Thompson used to say, and to borrow a legal Latin phrase, res ipsa loquitur.

Actually, it doesn't have to be major "issues". The problem, speaking from a public sector perspective, is that most employers are obsessed with "presenting only good news to the world". This is actually, I think, a consequence of the "marketisation" of higher education, and I think the same applies in healthcare.

Speaking for myself, it is not that much of what I say about work is particularly scathing, and indeed I only tend to blog about work themes when they have (hopefully) some sort of universality beyond the particular workplace (some examples here and here). But... again speaking for British Universities, they have become so "negative publicity averse" these days that one would conceivably get some comeback for saying anything other than relentlessly PR-alike positivity.