What's a blogger, anyway?

Bloggers are digital-era sweatshop workers, according to a story last week in the New York Times. "They work long hours, often to exhaustion. Many are paid by the piece - not garments, but blog posts. This is the digital-era sweatshop ... Some are starting to wonder if something has gone very wrong. In the last few months, two among their ranks have died suddenly."

Two other things have gone very wrong. The first is that two men -- one in his 50s and another in his 60s, and each with advanced cardiovascular disease -- have fatal heart attacks, and the cause is diagnosed as death-by-blogging by the nation's most credible newspaper. No, it wasn't consumption of junk food or lack of exercise. It was their blogging that killed them. Does this sound like the conclusion of a professional journalist, or a blogger hack?

The other is that, once again, bloggers are stereotyped.

A lot of people have generalized about bloggers as if they're one, cohesive group of like-minded people. Bloggers are sweatshop workers. Bloggers are teenage girls. Bloggers are rappers. Bloggers are egotists. Bloggers are unhealthy. Bloggers are happy and educated. Bloggers are symbiotic parasites. Bloggers are liars. Bloggers are mostly jobless women. Bloggers are low-life losers. Bloggers are people. And the rebuttal: Bloggers are monkeys.

The most persistent misconception about bloggers, however, is that they're second-rate journalists. Though it's true that many bloggers are second-rate, most aren't journalists. And maintaining a blog is very different from a career in journalism.

Have you noticed that the news media tends to portray bloggers as flaky, hysterical or irresponsible journalists, but then they also participate in the blogosphere with both officially sanctioned and unofficial blogs? While on the air or in print, the media dismisses the blogosphere, but most journalists also blog themselves. Some do it because it's a quick and effective way to publish views and facts their media don't have room for. Others do it to publicize their professional work. Still others do it as a publicity stunt for street cred (I'm talking about you, Anderson Cooper). This slam-and-copy approach can be easily explained: The media view blogs as a threat to their business. An honest journalist unconcerned with revenue wouldn't work hard at categorically dismissing bloggers.

It's true that blogging looks a lot like journalism. There's typing involved. Bloggers write about public issues and comment on the media. But if you look at, say, the reporter-reader relationship, the blogger is more akin to the reader than the reporter. Newspaper readers pore over the paper in the morning, then discuss what they've read with other newspaper readers -- co-workers, friends, family and others. People form their opinions and learn both from the media and also other consumers of media. Many readers are motivated to read newspapers and converse with other readers precisely for this reason: So they can comment intelligently about the events of the day. This discussing of media reports is what most blogging is all about.

The main difference between bloggers and newspaper readers is that bloggers write, rather than speak, their commentary. They link to, rather than reference, the newspaper (and other) reports. And they put their comments out there for anyone to read, rather than just whoever happens to be within earshot.

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