I’ve been worrying about the viability of blogging recently. Partly it’s finding myself squeezing this kind of thing in before breakfast and wondering if I really ought to get a life (although I’ve always thought work-life balance was over-rated – depends on the work, depends on the life….). But it was also the raised eyebrows (and envious tones) from a few colleagues in other development agencies, whose tone suggested that blogging was some kind of extraordinary self-indulgence that Oxfam should really clamp down on.
At the same time, like everyone else in this corner of the blogosphere, I was shocked when Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi announced that they were closing down the popular Aid Watch blog due to Chinese meal syndrome – they wanted to stop snacking and free up more time for longer research pieces. Interestingly, they also cited the urge to move from talking about aid to talking about development. Is aid-bashing fatigue breaking out? Elsewhere a few political blogs have been closing down in the UK recently, citing the increasing nastiness of the blogosphere and the lack of a business model that can allow people to earn a living from blogging.
So is the blogging bubble about to burst? Am I finally going to have to learn how to use twitter? Or just go back to writing books and 40 page policy papers? Don’t think so and to explain why not, here are some suitably self-justificatory thoughts about the role of blogging on development.
First, there are plenty of benefits to the blogger, and I don’t just mean a license to scrounge review copies of new books. Blogging forces you to read stuff more carefully and come to a view, it provides an immediate (though fairly small) audience for exchanges of daily thoughts and opinions, and you build up an archive of links + virtually every intelligent thought you’ve had (and a few others) for the last 3 years. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the big cheeses in Oxfam take more notice of something on the blog than if I send them the same thought in an email…… Feeding the blogbeast is undoubtedly a pressure, a daily monkey on your back, but in my experience, it’s a creative one.
But enough about me, what’s the wider organizational cost-benefit of having a (part time) blogger on your payroll?
There are some tangible benefits – there’s enough feedback to suggest that some posts get picked up by the media, or influence academics, other NGOs and (occasionally) policy makers. But I think it goes a bit deeper than that kind of direct (and attributable) impact. Blogging has turbocharged a part of the development discussion best described as the ‘ideas space’ – the daily churn of ideas, buzzwords, priorities, spins and slants which serves to accelerate the evolution of the conventional wisdom of the day. Remember variation, selection and amplification – the three elements of evolution? Blogs are probably best at the selection bit, chewing over new ideas, sifting and rejecting, setting agendas. Some go viral (think ‘Bottom Billion’ or Andy Sumner’s paper on where poor people live these days), while most sink rapidly into well-deserved oblivion.
That chatter influences the views of pundits, politicians and aid workers alike. Over eighty years ago, Keynes memorably pointed out that ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’ That’s still true – decision makers often resemble living fossils of the dominant schools of thought at the time when they went to university. But now the thoughts of last week’s bloggers are overlaid on that deeper, more immovable frame of thought. Gramsci would have blogged from prison.
I’m not sure NGOs have sufficiently woken up to the increased importance of the ideas space. Look at the wonky end of the developmental blogosphere and they are noticeable by their absence. Are we clinging too much to policy paper land, albeit with added press work? NGO blogs tend to be unengaging – either gushing or leaden. Or anonymously corporate – the best-read blogs have a face and a personality, and institutional blogs, whether from thinktanks or NGOs can be pretty dull affairs.
Given the demands of solo blogging, it may be that the most sustainable option is to assemble a group of faces, rather than an institution or an individual. A View from the Cave reckons CGD has got the right balance between individual personality and institutional identity. Global Dashboard is another example of an a stable of bloggers that produces enough (too much?) output without killing anyone. Any others?
So although periodic shake-outs are inevitable, blogging has to evolve a bit to become more sustainable, and individual bloggers will always drop out through exhaustion, boredom or life changes, I reckon this particular form of cyber soap box is here to stay. Sorry.
Update: look, I really wasn’t fishing for compliments, (at least not consciously), but thanks anyway…….