Weblogs and Google Viewed from the French Left

Going back to the French press today . . . which is dominated by coverage of France and Germany getting off without penalty for their defiance of the Growth & Stability Pact, by a vote today of the Council of EU Finance Ministers (“Ecofin”). (Well, not L’Humanité. Coverage over there is of leftist-type other stuff – anyone for Iraq: Every Day The List of Fallen American Soldiers Gets Longer? Today, if you want L’Humanité, you’re going to have to rev up your own French.)

I’ve reported and commented enough about the French and Germans violating the Stability Pact (latest here), and the Netherlands – among others – not liking it. What more is there to say?

Wait now . . . those of you with that French-leftist predilection . . don’t wander away all sniffling and sad now, I didn’t mean to be so abrupt. Heck, didn’t I show you my love with my recent coverage of the European Social Forum?

Tell you what: Let’s go to another French publication which is almost as leftist as L’Humanité, namely Le Monde Diplomatique (a monthly commentary newspaper), especially now that I’ve spotted this neat piece about weblogs (!) (check out the title, worthy of the Weekly World News: Internet Seized by Weblog Mania; the piece is from last August’s issue). By the way, I found that article via this almost-as-interesting leftist treatment (yes!) of Google (The World According to Google), from the October issue, which is also worth a look.

Now, about that “weblog mania”: that turns out to be just another headline exaggerated to draw the reader’s eye, although there is talk later in the article about the “death of publishing.” Still, this treatment is certainly interesting as a “Weblog 101” course drawn up for the French literary establishment by one Francis Pisani, a French journalist based in San Francisco. (So he must know what is going on. Well, we do know that he is savvy enough to have grabbed the domain “www.francispisani.net” for himself.)

QU’EST-CE QUE C’EST QU’UN «BLOG»?

What are these “blogs”? Pisani’s definition is carnet de bord sur la Toile, or “notebook on the edge of the Web,” and what they do, he says, is “willingly mix information and opinions, and are often accompanied by a link to the original source on another blog or in an article the blogger comments on or signals to his public.” The first one ever? Dave Winer’s blog, started 7 October 1994. (So will the blogosphere be ready for a big tenth-year anniversary next year?) What really got them going? September 11, of course, with the raft of “warblogs” which that inspired, although, according to Pisani, that term now refers to those weblogs devoted to covering the War in Iraq. He brings up again the well-cited fact about that war, that Americans seemed to sense that their information needs weren’t being adequately served by their country’s mega-media and so often looked elsewhere for other points-of-view: to the BBC, to England’s Guardian newspaper (on-line), and of course to weblogs, the most famous in this regard being the one written by Baghdad resident “Salam Pax.”

But how important are they? Maybe not so important, reports Pisani. He cites a Pew Center report to the effect that only 4% of Americans with Internet access visit them (which comes out to about 3 million people); “the total number is so small that it is not possible to draw statistically-significant conclusions about those who use them.”

Any importance blogs have, he concludes, must have to do with their effect on journalism. They sometimes catch stories that mainstream journalism misses – such as then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott’s remarks about Strom Thurmond of last December that eventually led to his resignation from that post. And, more and more, mainstream journalism is including a weblog component in the material it presents to its public: the Guardian, for example, and even MSNBC.

THE OLD BLOGS-JOURNALISM TANGLE

Here the old debate resurfaces: are weblogs themselves journalism? Well, there’s the difference that a weblog generally has no editor. (Although that rule has itself been violated, such as was the case with the California Insider, covered and discussed here in your very own EuroSavant). Dan Gillmore – credited by Pisani as the very first journalist to write a weblog published by the same paper he works for – states that “blogs make up part of a mechanism that borders on journalism,” while on the other hand another on-line journalist (Steven Johnson, who directed the defunct e-zine Feed) is quoted that blogs actually have nothing to do with journalism, since they concern gestion des connaissances, or “knowledge management.” Indeed, according to Johnson blogs are interesting precisely because they are not journalism. In any case, Pisani wryly notes, “one must not put any confidence in blogs, even less than in the traditional media, which we know can lie and be mistaken.”

Then Pisani goes on to yet another on-line guru, Clay Shirky, who calls weblogs “such an efficient distribution instrument for the written word that they will make publishing an activity without any financial value.” But that’s OK, finds Shirky (who, one must presume, does not himself work in traditional publishing; nope, that’s not among the past professions he lists over on the left-hand side of his website): ” We want a world where global publishing is effortless. We want a world where you don’t have to ask for help or permission to write out loud.” It’s just that the concomitant “destruction of value” will tend to make it hard to earn money from writing anymore (assuming that’s what you want to do); you’ll have to try to do that through various other, indirect means. (Shirky’s original article you’ll find here, in English.)

But back to Pisani and Le Monde Diplomatique: “Blogs,” he declares, “expound, with a good dose of narcissism, the global and fragmented history of the contemporary world.” Journalists write history’s rough-draft; bloggers have found a space to “evoke history’s stammerings.”


Now about that more-recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique: The World According to Google, by French Internet writer Pierre Lazuly. Fortunately, you can access this one yourself, since Lazuly has thoughtfully translated the article he originally wrote in French for Le Monde Diplomatique into English – he entitles the translation Telling Google what to think, but otherwise I can vouch that it is an accurate rendering of his original piece. Hey – he even quotes our recent acquaintance, Francis Pisani!

Although Lazuly’s article carries overtones of the sort of attitude you would probably expect – “Just four companies in the United States now provide the entire world’s quality net search services,” and watch out! They are subtly and insidiously distorting your view of reality! – it is still well worth taking a look at. “Google: The Rest of the Story” it could just have well been entitled, for it runs down certain defects and biases inherent in that world-conquering (and, very soon, financial market-conquering) search engine that you would probably like to be aware of. For “Google’s limits are most evident when confronted with political questions”; “algorithms can’t always determine what is important.”

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