Monday, April 30, 2007

Some people...

There are some great people out there in the nascent UK left-wing blogosphere. There are some enthusiastic but intellectually suspect hacks. Equally, it has its objectionable moments. No pursuit as open as blogging is ever going to maintain a uniformly high standard. There is no quality control. The right-wing blogosphere contains much the same assortment and only in our partisan moments would we seriously think either is, in general, much better than the other. The right-wing blogosphere is just a lot bigger and more active so there is a larger cream in the crop.

However, what the right-wing blogosphere doesn't have is this craven obsession among some of its supposed leading lights with 'exposing' the other side of the blogosphere. There are two left-wing sites dedicated entirely to trying to expose Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes. Guido's approach to blogging is fairly extreme and I understand how he can provoke a strong response although Guido 2.0 still seems rather over the top. With Iain Dale though this looks like a very bizarre obsession.

I've been caught up in this to a certain extent. Last night I linked to the exchange Iain Dale quoted between a US general and a reporter. Apparently that exchange, which I've received over e-mail before as well, is an urban legend. Any civilised person, seeing Iain Dale make this mistake, would respond the way Gracchi did in the comments on my post:

"Matt have you seen this apparently Dale picked up an old hoax from the internet."

It isn't important. Iain wasn't claiming any particular significance for this item. It was just a clever little joke about gun control. However, the mighty blogging minds over at 'Iain Dale's Dairy' have added it to their house of cards. "Way to boost the credibility of British political blogging, Iain." They cite its spread through the blogosphere as evidence of some kind of unthinking loyalty to Iain Dale.

All Iain did was receive a funny e-mail and publish it up on his blog so others could enjoy it. Which they did. Not fact-checking that e-mail doesn't tell you anything about his fact-checking process for important stories as mistakes in those stories are important and Iain will treat them differently. Those of us who linked to it just thought it was a clever little joke. Its true origins are a minor issue and making a mountain out of such a tiny molehill suggests obsession.

The rest of the 'Iain Dale's Dairy' site looks just as weird. They have an entire section about "Iain the Spammer" which seems to be based around a single set of e-mails sent to some bloggers in January 2006 letting them know that his blog had been relaunched. This is ridiculous. It really isn't important whether Iain Dale has technically been spamming or not. Anyone who can't see the difference between sending messages to a relatively small (there is some dispute about whether you can count the total number on one or two hands) number of fellow blogs asking for links and the 'spam' that really troubles people is an idiot. Proper spam is sent to thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people. It is sent to market a product (this is important to the actual regulation). It is utterly indiscriminate (I get quite a lot in Chinese). It often offers something unpleasant like illicit prescription drugs or pornography.

I don't think it is remotely credible that Tim Ireland et. al. are actually remotely upset at the inconvenience of Iain Dale's e-mail over a year ago. Certainly, they don't appear to have made a fuss at the time. They're just inventing problems to justify their obsession.

They are offended by the media's understanding of Iain Dale as a 'blogging expert'. They sound jealous. He may not have been blogging forever and he makes no claims to technical expertise but neither are really what blogging is about. Blogging does not require technical knowledge. It requires having something interesting to say that people will want to read. In that Iain clearly does have something of a track record. All Iain ever does with his status as blogging expert is evangelise for blogging and try to convince more people to take it up. Those who follow his advice will make of it what they will but if Ireland is really representing the interests of blogging he should recognise that it is a good thing they are getting involved.

Finally, sock puppets. This windmill has been tilted at more than any other. The freedom of the Internet will always provide an avenue for weirdos to express themselves. The problem those weirdos face is that most people will avoid them like the plague for being weird. Comments sections on large sites attract these people because it is a way to piggyback on another's popularity. I know people who want to post anonymously because they value their privacy and I don't want to force them to register and maybe "accidentally give themselves away". Equally, many people will only comment very occasionally and I don't want those who visit my site to have to do anything more than write their message before they can give feedback. They might conclude it isn't worth the bother which would be a shame. I'd guess that Iain Dale, with a relatively large casual readership thanks to his blog being well known among non-bloggers, doesn't want to discourage casual commenters either.

All Iain can do is remove unpleasant comments when he sees them or when they are pointed out to him. This isn't an exact science because the line between offensive and not offensive isn't that clear. Some comments are clearly offensive but many are just a bit bolshy and can be taken in good fun. Calling someone a 'nihilist' for example is a bit strange but not offensive. That he sometimes fails to remove posts that should be taken down does not mean he isn't quite entitled to prevent you commenting on every single post to try and divert discussion back to the same issue (how is Ireland's criticism of Iain's blogging technique relevant to a discussion of Peter Mandelson and David Cameron). Ireland seems to expect that Iain should do nothing all day but cater to his obsession.

I keep coming back to obsession for a reason. Tim Ireland is obsessed. I think that is important to point that out because otherwise we might let one man's obsession, shared with a few others, produce lasting division. That might make reasonable debate across ideological lines far more difficult which would be tragic.

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