The blog — a contraction of the term “web log” — has become one of the most talked-about Internet phenomena since Sept. 11, 2001. A blog is a website that is an online diary, updated as often as the owner, or “blogger,” chooses.
After the 9/11 attacks, blogs gained prominence as alternative sources of information from mainstream media. And those that addressed political issues, such as U.S. foreign policy after 9/11, split roughly into pro- and anti-war camps.
But one Irish website has blazed a trail, existing as a daily-updated blog for years before the name itself was even coined. Newshound (www.nuzhound.com), daily-updated links to other news websites with stories about Northern Ireland, the Troubles and the peace process, is a blog, at least in the opinion of another blogger on the topic of Northern Irish politics, Mick Fealty.
Said Fealty, who runs Slugger O’Toole (www.sluggerotoole.com): “You might say that [Newshound owner] John Fay has been way ahead of the game as far as [blogging] is concerned. I understand he’s been around for about 5/6 years. [To be a blog] it only needs to be regularly updated, with posts marked by date and time. The Newshound is indeed a web log.”
Bloggers, verbose by nature, are more than willing to talk at length about blogging. Currently, blogs can be loosely split into two kinds: thinkers and linkers. Thinkers spend most of their time updating their blogs with commentary, often highly detailed, on their interest or obsession, from American foreign policy and the war to the Northern Irish peace process.
Many blogs are simply accounts of the blogger’s personal life. One London journalist reckons that there are from 750,000 to 1 million “serious” blogs on the Internet today.
Fay’s Newshound, providing only daily links to news stories on the North, puts him firmly in the “linker” camp, someone whose updates are most often links to other sources of interest on the Internet.
Fay himself said he did not think of the Newshound as a blog.
“When I started the Newshound [in October 1996], I just wanted to act as a ‘sifter’ of news about Northern Ireland,” he said. “I always thought that there was a sufficiency of comment and opinion pieces available on the subject and that there was little to be gained by my adding any comments.”
So where did blogging begin? First, some background: online diaries are as old as the web itself. But only people with technical expertise — such as John Fay — could do it. Enter blogging software, programs created a couple of years ago that allows anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and the ability to type, the chance to create his own blog.
Newshound is the grande dame of blogs. More typical, though, of today’s blogs and one of the best known, is Fealty’s Slugger O’Toole, described as “notes on Northern Ireland politics and culture.” Originally from Belfast, researcher Fealty lives in London and updates Slugger O’Toole from there, carefully combing the Internet for all the latest news and comment, as well as adding snippets of his own commentary.
Fealty explained how Slugger was started: “The blog was set up in early June last year simply as a ‘log’ to catch articles with serious political or weighty content.
“Now it is more than a simple log, with the readership increasingly playing a role in developing the discussion of specific issues.” In other words, if readers email or comment on a certain topic, it will drive Fealty to look deeper into that topic.
Fealty has recently started interviewing unionists and loyalists, asking searching questions about Unionism, its future and how it may change.
Other “special reports” will follow, he said, including looking at the various strands of republicanism and nationalism. He worried that starting with Unionism might lead casual readers to assume he himself was aligned politically in that direction.
“I was a little concerned that the recent focus on unionism might brand the site as being favorable to one position rather than the other,” he said, “But so far there has been no sign of that.”
Asked how influential he thinks his blog is, Fealty replied: “I know that some Westminster politicians do read the blog regularly, though I
also suspect, as time is at a premium, it is more thoroughly read by the backroom teams in various political parties.”
Both Newshound and Slugger O’Toole have established themselves as superb online resources for anyone seeking information on Northern Ireland and Ireland today. In particular, O’Toole has an exhaustive supply of links to the entire mainstream Irish media at home and abroad, government, political parties and bodies and other personal blogs.
In the U.S., Irish and Irish-American blogs have been consumed with another conflict — the all but certain war with Iraq. Typical of today’s personal blogs are Agonist.org and Kieranhealy.org.
These represent one of the key aspects of blogging: they allow a person with a passion for a particular issue, usually political (and these days that almost always includes the proposed war with Iraq), to speak at length about that issue.
Sean-Paul Kelley runs Agonist.org. In an email, he described why he started his blog.
“I started The Agonist so that I could really cover what I’m passionate about: international politics,” he said. Kelley is firmly on the side of the skeptics with regard to U.S. policy around the world, but he is in favor of the war — a “pro-war liberal” as he calls himself.
“Even after 9/11 the U.S. media isn’t paying nearly enough attention to international affairs. No one in the mainstream is covering how many helicopters have ‘accidentally crashed’ in Afghanistan.”
Kelley said he thinks that bloggers, up front about their biases, steal a march on traditional media.
“[Blogs] are good at . . . coming out and saying, ‘Hey, I am liberal,’ or, ‘hey, I am conservative.’ Why hide it like the media does? We all know Fox News is conservative and we all know that the New York Times is liberal. Why not just say it? With blogs you get that right up front.
“[The networks] are all good at giving people real superficial information, you know, the sound-bite thing or gossipy vitriol like Matthews, O’Reilly and their ilk. The media refuses to ask tough questions of our leaders. There is no depth and very, very little followup.”
Also, he added, bloggers can spend time researching news topics. The networks cram everything into a half hour.
“The genius of blogging, as a new media form, is that we can get into the nuances much better than, say, the 5 o’clock news,” Kelley said. “They’ve only got 30 minutes. They’ve got to give you the murders, the weather, sports and local scandals. Who has time for serious reporting? My reader, on the other hand, has as much time as I can keep him or her here.”
Another blogger is Irish-born Kieran Healey, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona. He is reluctant to speak of his blogging in war terms.
“I wouldn’t even describe myself as a pro- or anti-war blogger, in that I cover a range of stuff other than just that,” he said.
His topics include, he said, “sociology, politics, current events, books, and random stuff that catches my attention.”
Recently, however, a considerable amount of his comment on his blog (www.kieranhealey.org) is war-related.
Healey said he thinks Sept. 11 was a key moment in giving blogging a shove into prominence around the world.
“Sept. 11 does seem to have caused a surge in both the number of bloggers and in the amount of debate and cross talk between them,” he said.
“I don’t think it heightened their profile in the wider world. If anything has done that, it was the events surrounding Trent Lott’s resignation. That story was pushed by some influential bloggers, and seems to have been picked up by more mainstream journalists from there.”
Conservative bloggers may, some observers say, be even more numerous than liberal ones. One of the best-known blogs is that of conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com). Sullivan’s blog is a lucidly written conservative commentary on world events and politics. In particular, Sullivan, an established journalist and commentator, helped establish the blogging habit of taking a piece of reporting or opinion from the mainstream media and skewering its mistakes or foibles, point by point.
And at Janegalt.net there is Irish-American Megan McArdle, a New Yorker who also addresses the expected war and its related issues at her blog. The name is apparently a pun on the famous opening line of conservative philosopher Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged”: “Who is John Galt?”
At www.faithfulvoice.com, the blogger posts messages and news stories attacking the new Roman Catholic lay group Voice of the Faithful, which itself was founded calling for greater lay influence over church clergy hiring and church finances. Faithfulvoice.com consistently argues from the position that the pope and the church’s hierarchy cannot but be infallible, and therefore will not lead anyone astray in their dealings with church scandals.
Outside of the political, religious or war-focused blogs are some off-the-wall blogs dealing with a myriad of topics. Irishbornchinese.kaykays.com, is a blog about what its web address says, Irish-born Chinese people. On that the site, the Irish-born Chinese author notes with curiosity that mainland Chinese immigrants tend to live on Dublin’s north side, whereas Hong Kong immigrants and Irish-born Chinese tend to be on the south side of the Liffey.
Hot on the heels of the web log comes the photo log, which exist less for text entries than for photographs updated often more than once a day. At www.lightningfield.com, David Gallagher, a technology journalist who freelances mostly for the New York Times, updates his blog almost daily with images taken around New York City and elsewhere.
The final word goes to Fay, who may, or may not, depending one’s point of view, have been blogging all these years before blogs appeared en masse.
Fay said he has always seen “the Newshound as a time saver, where most blogs are efforts at promoting a point of view.”
However, one thing blogs have proved is that, valuable though many are as sources of information, the Internet can be anything but a time saver.