Saturday, January 26, 2008

Nihil Obstat

Hey voters and coders, it's time for another Virtualpolitik book review.

This time I'll be examining Geert Lovink's Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, which represents a much more sophisticated critique of Web 2.0 than books that are heavily self-promoted to mass market audiences, such as the terrible Cult of the Amateur. I'm not sure that I agree with Peter Krapp that Lovink's book "reads like a blog," even though much of it is written from the personal perspective of working closely with other digital artists and critics in sites of activity around the world. I think it would be a hard book to teach, even in a graduate seminar, even though Lovink is careful to define terms, not only because it assumes that the reader has read widely in media theory and critical theory more generally but also because it has a kind of assumed cosmopolitanism of life experience and an international viewpoint and engagement with the politics of art and the art of politics that people of a certain age who go straight from one provincialism to another in the transition from undergraduate education to graduate school probably can't relate to.

In the opening of the book, Lovink promises to offer a "general theory of blogging," which characterizes these discursive practices as historically situated in post-9/11 cynicism and the sloganism that feeds political polarities that Lovink sees at work in the virtual communities on both sides of the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Although Lovink can be seen as a kind of polar opposite of Henry Jenkins, who has achieved fame celebrating "participatory" fan cultures or branded transmedia narratives, both Jenkins and Lovink agree that social media and user-generated content doesn't necessarily produce progressive political dialogue. When characterizing YouTube, Jenkins has said that "participatory culture is not always progressive." Lovink would seem to be making an even stronger statement about the radical and reactionary dynamic of blogs, which he points out "seemlessly fit into the talk radio and cable news landscape." (For a Virtualpolitik review of Henry Jenkins' book Convergence Culture, go here.)

In his chapter on "Blogging, the Nihilist Impulse," Lovink argues that although these blogs encourage political extremism, they are simultaneously emblematic of diaristic "vague media" that lack direction and engagement with public action. At a theoretical level, Lovink clearly owes much to Michel Foucault in that he points out how blogs function as a "tool to manage the self." He also uncouples the widely promoted vision that links blogging with "citizen journalism." Lovink cites one-time Howard Dean strategist Joe Trippi to argue that in a divided electorate, blogs are important and yet marginal.

Unfortunately, he also reinterates the truism that equates social media with oral tradition, a connection that I argue can also have disastrous consequences if it blinds policy makers to the subtleties of these new genres. And in reading the first chapter, I also wish that he engaged more in the interesting debate about blogging that has been going on in journalism schools. Saying bloggers "rarely add new facts to a news story" is a gross oversimplification, even if I resent the creeping influence of what I have called "Facebook journalism" in the news media.

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