Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Do You Tell Them or Should I?

At its best, blogging offers a number of possibilities for improving public discourse and government accountability: eyewitness journalism that rebuts the official stories, crowdsourcing the interpretation of otherwise unread legislation or other government documents, a broadening of the archive to include more materials from citizens, a rethinking of the parameters of public spaces beyond physical locations like parks and city council chambers, and an opportunity for reflection on the history of the present.

At its worst, blogging turns up the volume on the echo chamber, makes the only agenda hype or self-promotion, and churns out totally banal content only of interest to the author him or herself.

Geert Lovink has written about both sides of this "nihilism" of blogging in Zero Comments.

Unfortunately, during the Bush administration, blogging by government officials and employees was almost entirely of the latter kind. It made it possible to hand out actual awards for badness in e-government in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

The plug hasn't yet been pulled on a few of these Bush administration blogs, but many have improved considerably since the Obama inauguration in terms of readability and responsiveness. Evolution of Security is posting more actual behind-the-scenes information in response to reader queries, in the time after former administrator Kip Hawley's Final Post. Dipnote is trying to reinvent inself with the help of Twitter.

But GovGab continues in its unbloggy vein, as if in a permanent time warp. Although "its purpose is to demonstrate the usefulness, practicality, helpfulness, and vitality of federal, state, and local government information though real-life examples in the bloggers' daily lives," the team of citizen bloggers they have assembled have been given a doomed task, since the blog lacks any coherent subject matter or an engaging policy voice that might draw regular readers.

Its point -- the minutiae of our lives are not so indirectly connected to government services -- is certainly a legitimate one to make, but it's a one note message that is difficult to sustain for weeks and months. This month the fare has included aches and pains (National Dental Health Month, runner's knee), dates on the calendar (Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Valentine's Day), and preparing for the switch to digital TV. Reading GovGab is sort of like reading letters from an elderly shut-in, except without the family scandals, racy stories, and recollections from yesteryear that might make its often mawkish sentiments interesting.

None of this is really the fault of the writers, who have been tasked to be inoffensive, generic, and lacking in professional specialization. GovGab is a doomed vehicle rhetorically, and the bloggers were chosen precisely because they lacked the expertise and authoritative voice that draws readers to most blogs, which generally also develop niche topics rather than dispense advice to Joe Citizen.

After passing its first birthday, GovGab is a toddler now. The rationale for the site was reiterated in Gov Gab: Your U.S. Government Blog Celebrates First Birthday, where readers could see the roster of typical government employee bloggers next to their days in which they celebrate their averageness. For more information, you can listen to this interview with director Beverly Godwin in which she says the dated word "blogosphere" about a dozen times, which is particularly ironic since GovGab generally links to sources of government information rather than engages in dialogue with other blogs.

Now GovGab has moved to Twitter, where it hasn't gotten much better.

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