Blogging has never been bigger,” the Guardian declared last year. Well, not in Ireland. Although more people are talking to each other online, and the number of Facebook users surged from 400,000 last January to 1.2m two weeks ago, the blog is in a rut.
There are about 4,000 Irish bloggers, much the same number as last year. “Blogging has definitely slowed down, as all these other tools that allow us to communicate have come along,” admits Damien Mulley, one of Ireland’s best-known bloggers.
He agrees that some have migrated to social networking sites such as Twitter, where they can express their opinions online in 140 characters at a time. “Some bloggers have given up the ghost completely,” Mulley said. “Some have gone from daily updates to weekly or monthly. It’s like when texting came about – it had a massive impact on people making phone calls.”
Much had been expected of bloggers. They were supposed to expose newspaper columnists as out-of-touch, they would beat lazy journalists to the best stories, and they would generally move public discourse online. Instead, most blogging was social networking. Rather than get up on a stage to give a political speech to a crowd of 500, bloggers preferred the virtual equivalent of chatting in the pub with friends.
Of course, the stroll-out of broadband in Ireland didn’t help, nor does the failure of newspapers to invest in online resources, financially or journalistically. “The online environment in Ireland is fairly barren,” says Paul Colgan, an expatriate Irish journalist who runs one of Australia’s biggest news websites. “I’m surprised at how slow the uptake is on basics like Facebook and Twitter. There isn’t a population big enough to make blogs work, and there seems to be a cultural indifference or fear about sharing breakfast details.”
More blogs are also going mainstream. Mulley points out that the sisters behind Beaut.ie, a beauty blog which gets 200,000 hits a day, have regular radio slots and a column in the Evening Herald. Nialler9, a music blogger, and Donal Skehan, of the Good Mood Food Blog, write for the Irish Independent. “I actually think bloggers are over-represented in media given that there’s a few thousand active blogs in Ireland,” he said.
Some are making money. While Beaut.ie sells ads, internet electronics shop Komplett claims it makes a six-figure sum from having a blog and expects to push that past a million.
“Myself and others I know make money indirectly,” Mulley said. “We have nothing to sell on our blogs, but they establish authority and credibility and lead to brand recognition and people recommending your services to others. I’ve lost count of the number of consultancy gigs I got from a reader of my blog recommending me to a friend or their boss. A lot of these people I’ve never met – we just know each other from blog comments.”
Most bloggers don’t want to make money, they want to make a difference. Some say they do not want public attention. “I don’t think the blogging community wants or needs mainstream respect or recognition,” blogger Rick O’Shea has said. “It only matters that people are reading your blog. The blogging community doesn’t need anyone but the blogging community.”
They don’t mean that, though, not really. Some crave recognition. There are annual blog awards, and squawks of online indignation if newspapers steal their material without credit. There are dozens of wannabe journalists, hoping to impress newspaper editors enough to hire them.
Sarah Carey is the best-known example of a blogger who got a column, first with The Sunday Times and later The Irish Times. She believes that blogs are “a gift” for newspapers. “They represent a free training school for columnists, where you can see a person’s full portfolio of style and stamina,” she said. “Newspapers, rather than looking down on blogs, should suck the best out of them – free market research on what lights people’s fires, free opinion and sometimes free fact-hunting, and a way to source new talent.”
Carey has shut her blog, partly because she was fed up umpiring the often badtempered discussions that web diaries inevitably generate. She thinks this is another reason why more bloggers confine their musings to Facebook.
“Link sharing can be achieved more easily within a closed network. It’s a big issue keeping out the nutters and the spammers. Blogging gets rough because it’s open,” she said. “Social networks require permission to join.”
FOR a long time, bloggers were hoping for a “tipping point” that would make their favourite medium a big player, the equal of newspapers, television or radio.
In February 2006, it was thought the moment had arrived. During the Dublin riots, several bloggers became citizen journalists, posting words and pictures on the web before professional journalists. Yet the realisation slowly dawned that such dramatic breaking-news events are few and far between in Ireland.
Another “tipping point” was declared when Suzy Byrne, who blogs as Maman Poulet, worked out during the American presidential election campaign that a “visit” to Ireland by Sarah Palin had been nothing more than a Shannon stopover. Byrne’s revelation was taken up by the influential internet newspaper The Huffington Post, and for a while her site traffic soared. Again, a follow-up proved elusive.
There was a “tipping point” of a type last year with the launch of IrishEconomy.ie, a group blog by a dozen or so of the country’s leading economists. Here were a bunch of brainy, articulate experts discussing everyone’s favourite subject: economics. The traffic was heavy and continuous. It proved that niche subjects make for the best blogs, and that the blogger’s strength is analysing news rather than breaking it.
“Irish Economy took off because it acted as a resource for facts,” said Carey. “It gave us the stats, charts, papers and the economics behind the spin, rather than simply expressing opinion. It’s a success because we desperately needed it. Irish media already provides a well-rounded source of opinion.”
That analytic role has also been taken up by thestory.ie, co-authored by Gavin Sheridan, a blogger since 2002. Frustrated that the John O’Donoghue expenses-scandal story wasn’t getting enough media attention, he got copies of all the ceann comhairle’s expense-claim forms and posted them online. Now the public could see the secretary’s handwriting beside the 80 tip to “Indians for moving the luggage”.
Each of the O’Donoghue documents was viewed only 50 to 100 times, but one reader of Sheridan’s blog noted that a limousine driver used by the ceann comhairle in London was the son of a Fianna Fail minister. The expenses-scandal story had taken a new twist.
Sheridan illustrated the benefits of a blogger over a print journalist. A blogger has no deadlines and can post material whenever and as often as they like. There’s no restriction on space; no editors or lawyers looking over their shoulder; and there’s constant interaction with readers.
“The phrase used online is ‘crowd sourcing’,” said Sheridan. “You dump material online, 1,000 pairs of eyes may look at the documents you’ve posted, including accountants, economists and solicitors. They may glean far more information, they will contribute, and you may get a new angle.
“For a journalist, ‘crowd sourcing’ may mean you don’t get an exclusive, and others can see what you’re doing. But does that really matter? Sure exposing information is what journalism is all about.”
Sheridan is correct up to a point; most journalists do crave exclusivity. They are also paid; bloggers are not, although thestory.ie did raise 2,000 from its readers to fund Freedom of Information (FOI) act requests. While many of Sheridan’s posts attract “no comments”, indicating little interest, TwentyMajor.net, Ireland’s most popular blogger gets dozens of replies to postings such as “John O’Donoghue is a f****** clown” and “John O’Donoghue is a c*** and he’s not the only one.”
Isn’t that typical, and disheartening for those who hoped the internet might be a forum for higher minds?
“Everyone has their niche,” said Mulley. “Thestory.ie is fine for posting dull FOIs with a conspiracy theory hook to them – there’s a space for that. If you read the posts, though, they are more like a notice board than something that really engages.
“Compare that to Twenty Major, which is populist with a subtle intelligent analysis of current affairs. More people join in because the posts encourage discussion, even if it is to shout at TDs.”
Sheridan agrees, and points out that many journalists’ blogs don’t work because print writers aren’t used to encouraging readers to join in. “It’s a different way of writing from journalism – it’s more conversational, like talking to an individual,” he said.
“You are not on a pedestal giving your views. Students who are blogging now, once they start in journalism they will be totally comfortable with that. A normal part of journalism will be engaging with readers and crowd sourcing.”
Blogs also engage by updating regularly. This is a common deficiency in Irish online diaries. Michael O’Toole, the Irish Daily Star’s crime correspondent, has an engaging blog providing a behind-the-scenes insight on his job.
His last post was about a doorstep interview with the audience member who shouted at Pat Kenny on The Frontline. That was November 11. Ken Foxe, the Sunday Tribune journalist who broke the O’Donoghue story, hasn’t updated his blog since November 9. Blurred Keys, an Irish media blog, has been off air since July.
“The more time and effort you put in, the more traffic you get,” said Sheridan. “If I reduce my output, readership goes down. If you are consistent and regular in your posting, and engage in debates, you get feedback and loyalty.”
An important absence in Ireland are leading players from business, the arts, education, politics and property who write honestly and revealingly, giving an insight into their sectors. Instead, the blogosphere has been left free for “amateur” commentators and journalists. While some are entertaining, not one continually demands our attention. No Irish blog is important enough to read every day. Until that changes, you’ll be getting your news and comment on paper.