Everyone has an opinion

TOM FITZSIMONS
Last updated 10:32 05/11/2011

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There are now an estimated 200 million bloggers worldwide, and the chatter from the blogosphere grows ever louder.

Blogs are the soapboxes of the virtual world - chaotic, boisterous, but also surprisingly influential.

To scroll through New Zealand's blogosphere is to enter wildly uneven territory.

There's rancorous debate and abuse flying. There are claims of MPs knee-deep in the muck. There are sentences shouted in capital letters about how "THIS TORY GOVENMENT IS PLAIN EVIL".

Opinion flies as fast as the insults do, and they can be vitriolic - and played out before an amused audience.

Fortunately, there are other places where discussion is more measured. Maybe there aren't any comments, or the comments are moderated. Maybe the blogger is on about something completely different to the election - gardening or cooking or cycling.

During the past few years, a small collection of local blogs have gained big audiences. Others traffic in political intrigue and influence - sometimes to surprising effect - in spite of low reader numbers. And plenty more maintain small, interested audiences of hobbyists.

Blogs (the term is short for weblogs) can be like an electronic form of a diary, or a journal, or a guide, or really any form of personal writing, but often they most closely resemble short, punchy opinion columns. Many of them, it's fair to say, are rubbish.

The blogosphere is a sort of alternative national conversation among the computer-literate. Unlike other media, it doesn't seem to attract many casual readers; people either engage with blogs intensely or not at all.

That makes assessing the impact of bloggers hard. Some are closely followed by journalists and politicians (the Labour Party, in particular, has been accused of running scared of Right-wing blogs). Some have uncovered minor scandals. Some have got their audiences out for real, physical events.

But their work is kind of ephemeral, too, as the American journalist Jonathan Rauch noted earlier this year when he guest- starred on one of the most popular United States blogs.

"Lack of a payment model militates against professionalism and rewards noisiness; links and onscreen clutter militate against holding a reader's attention; instantaneousness militates against impulse control; the desktop and laptop screen are physically uncomfortable for reading. Result: induced ADD, in both writers and readers."

There have been various attempts to rank the local blogs, although nothing definitive has been produced.

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But what is not in dispute is the reign of Wellingtonian David Farrar as the nation's blog king. His Kiwiblog site routinely tops the lists with something like 50,000 visits a week.

Another thing that's not in dispute is that blogging doesn't mean big bucks - at least not here. We don't have any professional bloggers yet.

"It's stuff-all," Farrar says bluntly.

After taxes and expenses get taken off his advertising revenue, "what's left probably breaches the Minimum Pay Act".

Russell Brown, another prominent blogger who runs the website Public Address, agrees.

"I think it was three or four years ago, we had an $8000 month and I thought I was a genius - but it never happened again."

Blogs have been around for about a decade or so. It's not fully clear what form they'll take in the age of the tablet and the mobile web.

For now, though, they're still a vivid part of what's happening on the web, helping to sate the public appetite for constant analysis, and providing a forum for everything from intelligent commentary to angry vitriol to cooing over animal photos.

THE POLEMIC

Name: Cameron Slater

Blog: whaleoil.co.nz

Day job: Not applicable.

Politics: Right

Sample blog heading: "8 Days Left to Roll Phil Goff"

Cameron Slater, aka Whale Oil, aka The Whale, is probably best known as the blogger who repeatedly flouted name suppression laws before earning himself a conviction last year.

"The Solicitor-General had been long campaigning to make an example of bloggers, and I just fitted the profile - so he decided to come after me," the 42-year-old Aucklander says. "And once I'm in a battle, I don't give up, I just carry on."

This week he was in the Court of Appeal in Auckland, fighting to get his conviction overturned.

Everything's a battle to Slater, the son of former National Party president John Slater. He blogs on firearms, military matters, Middle East foreign policy - and, of course, politics.

"There's lots to talk about on politics because there's so many dirty, filthy, lying politicians out there. And it's just easy fodder."

Earlier this year, after he called Labour Party campaign manager Trevor Mallard a "cripple", the pair arranged a cycle race around Auckland. In August, after shedding 15 kilograms, Slater lost the 60-kilometre battle - but probably won the broader victory just by goading a senior MP to compete in such a thing and distracting him from his day job.

Slater landed a bigger blow on the Labour Party, his perennial enemy, when he got hold of its complete list of donors after it was somehow left in a public part of the party's website.

It's his greatest hit so far, he says.

But his aggressive style sometimes veers into the offensive and surreal.

After the Christchurch earthquake, he said looters who stole generators "should be gut-shot and left to die".

Among those he's challenged to fights are the sons of Folole Muliaga, the Auckland woman who relied on an oxygen machine and died after her home electricity was cut off.

Slater was unapologetic for his actions, later saying he got sick of "the way the media created a frenzy around a fat woman who was sent home by the hospital to die. F . . . them".

List MPs are "scum", as are various unionists, lawyers, criminals, Simon Power and Labour.

Critics of all this just need to "harden up", he says. "I'm not soft-soaping anything. I'm telling things as they are.

"And if they don't like it, well, too bad."

Slater founded Whale Oil in 2005 as an alternative to shouting at the television during news and current affairs shows. It was also something to do after the security systems company he part-owned fell over in 2004.

Since then, he's had an ongoing battle with depression, which he says Left-wing politicians and commentators have seized upon.

"They're supposed to be the caring Left, but every time I say something or do something that upsets them, the first thing they come out with is they either say I'm mental, I'm strange, mentally ill, they call me a sickness beneficiary or whatever."

Slater says his recipe for a good blog is simple: keep things short, keep things succinct, and don't ever waffle.

"If you write a short, blunt post, you garner a reaction, and that's the idea - to have a reaction, any reaction.

"It doesn't matter, as long as there's a reaction."

THE INSIDER

Name: David Farrar

Blog: kiwiblog.co.nz

Day job: Pollster (clients include the National Party)

Politics: "Classical liberal", National Party member

Sample blog heading: "Labour Congratulates Itself for Law-Breaking"

David Farrar says he is as surprised as anyone by how he has taken off as a blogger.

"Nowadays there is some almost conspiracy theories that it's all some secret plot to, you know, win friends and influence people. But basically it was for me, just a continuation."

A continuation, he says, of a passion that took hold of him in the mid-1990s. That is when he first started debating politics on the internet, in an anarchic message-board setting called Usenet.

He switched tack in 2003 after seeing he could control the conversation better on blogs - "You get what I call a higher signal-to-noise ratio."

Notwithstanding the conspiracy theories, Farrar has strong partisan allegiances. He worked in Parliament for eight years, including stints in the offices of former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, and with party leaders Bill English and Don Brash.

"It does give me a bit of credibility, that it is a bit more than just some guy with an opinion. I do actually know a wee bit of what I'm talking about there."

It also means that his commentary, with a few exceptions, comes consistently from the Right (at least economically; socially, he's quite liberal).

Of all the recognised bloggers Farrar could be deemed the most mainstream - you'll see him regularly on television or as a political commentator on news websites.

Farrar's blog posts are maybe three-quarters politics, with forays into technology issues, travel pictures, birdwatching snaps and even the odd theatre review.

"I think it's good to be a bit of a person, not just a political talking point."

He draws widely on traditional media, often splicing, say, a newspaper editorial with his own running commentary. (Some of his posts are simply cut-and-paste jobs). But he says the relationship goes the other way too.

"I've given up tracking how often something I have done on the blog gets into mainstream media. It's not daily, but it is probably not far off weekly."

Despite his clear political sympathies, Farrar sometimes crosses party lines. Earlier this year, for instance, he paired with Labour's Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson to report on the Government's unusually frequent use of urgency to pass legislation.

"I try to be fair. I'll praise other parties when they do good stuff. I'll criticise National when I think they are due criticism."

His readership is less given to flexibility, with a comments section that can border on the toxic. He has even been forced to resort to introducing a demerit system to deal with problem readers.

Farrar thinks the local blogosphere is unusually good compared to other countries.

"With the exception of the US, it is probably more influential and more widely read than most. In Australia, there are no real blogs that people hold up that have massive influence."

He puts his own success down to a mix of factors, from being a relatively early adopter of the blog to trying to inject some humour into his writing.

"Most importantly though, I don't actually write for the audience, because then you're second-guessing. I just write for what I think's interesting and what I'm interested in. The good thing with blogs is there's blogs for everyone."

THE CULTURE GUY

Name: Russell Brown

Blog: publicaddress.net/hardnews

Day job: Journalist

Politics: Left-liberal

Sample blog heading: "Chill out: It's a Party"

Unlike most bloggers with a decent audience, Russell Brown doesn't post short, frequent updates. Instead, he goes for lengthier, more crafted pieces of writing.

"People used to accuse us of not being a proper blog site because our posts were too long and detailed, which I think is silly."

And it's not just Russell Brown, either, at Public Address - the "community of blogs" he started way back in 2001. At current count, there are another 10 contributors with their own blogs on the site, as well as a vocal audience that engages passionately with new posts.

Brown's blog was an extension of the long-running show he did for Auckland student radio station 95bfm called Hard News. Like most other bloggers, he's always felt the need to broadcast his opinions.

"The motivation was, on the one hand, a passionate need to editorialise, but on the other a genuine desire to be a useful citizen. And I think that's guided me all along."

Brown posts on plenty of political topics, but he says the blog isn't a political one.

"I think political blogs get numbing after a while. They're often frequented by the same types of people, and they have the same tone. And there's more to life than that."

So you're as likely to read about his night out on the town as his take on Murray McCully's takeover of the Auckland waterfront. Even though he's approaching 50, Brown writes about everyone from pill-popping young ravers to new indie bands.

Sometimes that's a bit indulgent - it's wearying to read about someone's social diary. But most of his output is intelligent, well-written commentary. Public Address is also easily the best-looking site in the Kiwi blogosphere.

That community thing is really important to Brown. Professionally, for instance, he's mined his audience for ideas for the TVNZ show he's hosted for the past couple of years, Media 7. But he's also just proud of what a lively, interesting forum it is.

"We have this sort of running joke about the Public Address medical journal which has been progressively added to over the years. But it's interesting that it's the kind of space where people do feel safe to talk about quite personal things."

Readers obviously value the blog too - when Brown asked for contributions earlier this year (a first for him), they sent in $5000.

Brown says political blogs get most of the attention, but they are "just the tip of the iceberg". There are good blogs about science cropping up in New Zealand now, good blogs about law, good blogs about cycling around Auckland. The blogs "have rescued satire in New Zealand", he says.

There's even the odd blog that's made it big overseas, like Lower Hutt blogger Richard MacManus' ReadWriteWeb, which is a heavyweight in the technology scene.

"There are a lot of very intelligent people with specialist knowledge out there, who can write, who don't happen to be journalists. And some of them - as a result of blogging - have become journalists. But the fact that they can now have a platform relatively easily, I think is to everyone's benefit."

THE SATIRIST

Name: Danyl McLauchlan

Blog: dimpost.wordpress.com

Day job: Researcher in Victoria University's biology department

Politics: Left-liberal, "Value pluralist"

Sample blog heading: "In John Key's New Zealand, Party Seizes You!"

Amid all the hoopla around the Government's proposal to restrospectively validate illegal police camera-work, it's been possible to miss another similarly controversial call.

As Danyl McLauchlan explained on his blog, Prime Minister John Key also wants the Crimes Act changed so the definition of manslaughter no longer covers "senior public servants who accidentally asphyxiate sex-workers at departmental parties".

"The law will be retrospectively applied back to December 17th, 2010, the date of last year's Crown Law Office Christmas function," McLauchlan quotes Key as saying.

"The Solicitor-General has specified this date as the key target for maintaining the integrity and dignity of the New Zealand justice system," Key explained, adding, "Go the All Blacks!"

This, for the record, is satire. And McLauchlan, 36, is the best in the blogging business at it. His blog's motto, from the Roman poet Juvenal: "It is difficult not to write satire".

Actually, other bloggers complain that he doesn't write nearly enough of it any more. ("When Danyl is at his best," says Kiwiblog's David Farrar, "you do almost have your eyes start to well up with tears.")

McLauchlan's a polymath. He works in computational biology, writes about David Foster Wallace and Kant and Don Brash, and always seems to weigh in with a perfectly timed quip.

He doesn't really have favourites when it comes to sending up politicians, he says - though "I do find Dr Brash a pretty irresistible target".

"I find the system and the character type of the politician is where you get most of your material. The actual personalities are quite often irrelevant. Though you do get types like Brash or [Hone] Harawira who are so distinctive they're an irresistible target."

McLauchlan acknowledges he leans to the Left in his political views.

"But ultimately I think the integrity of the system - democracy - is far more important than any political or party outlook. Which is why I'm Left-wing but I'm very critical of the Labour Party in its current form."

McLauchlan gets about 5000 to 6000 hits a day, unless he writes something special, when his numbers go up to about 8000.

His output tends to wax and wane. When he's not feeling inspired, it drops and so does the audience.

"Then I'll go through a fevered period where I get up every morning full of ideas and write stuff and then I'll have a coffee during lunchtime and look at the news and write something else. And then the viewership goes up and up and up."

Unlike other bloggers, McLauchlan is not too sanguine about the local scene. Blogging's essentially a critical medium, he says. It grew up here when Labour was in power, so the most strident voices are from the Right.

"But now obviously the Right is in power, so they're kind of reduced to the level of apologetics for whatever the Government has to do. And there really isn't the equivalent of something like Kiwiblog or Whale Oil around on the Left."

He doesn't want to be that voice himself. He doesn't have the time, and he prizes being able to mock the whole field too much. But if he could be a pro-blogger, like the American writers who are now permanent fixtures of the media?

Yeah, that sounds pretty good.

"To have the freedom to write about whatever you thought was interesting. I think it's kind of the intellectual's dream, isn't it?"

THE EARLY ADOPTER

Name: Robyn Gallagher

Blog: robyngallagher.com

Day job: Web content guru, between jobs

Sample blog heading: "N Sync's Celebrity - 10 years later"

As she says on her blog, Robyn Gallagher's been airing her thoughts online since 1996 - "the wild frontier days of the web".

That makes the Wellington-based 36-year-old one of the earliest pioneers in this country. She got started after hearing a lecture about the internet while studying at Waikato Polytech. It helped, too, that her internet package included some free web hosting.

But setting up a blog 15 years ago was infinitely harder than it is now.

"I basically had to teach myself HTML [a computer language devised to create websites].

"It was really, really old-school ... Most people online were either geeks or there were lots of students or someone who knew someone who could kind of give them a helping hand."

Once she'd got a website going, she remembers thinking: What am I going to put in it?

So she started to write, at first a little nervously.

"I remember being really self-conscious. I remember thinking someone would look at it and say, 'That's rubbish. You shouldn't be doing that, Robyn'. But then after a few months, people were saying to me, 'That's pretty cool. I like that thing you wrote', so I just sort of went, 'Oh okay, it's out there'."

She didn't set out with a particular label or plan for the blog. But in retrospect she sees her posts are mostly about music, film, television, pop culture and travel, as well as a few "random other things I feel like writing about".

Her audience is smaller than the big-name political blogs - she gets about 100 visitors a day. That number ballooned to 1000 earlier this year when The Guardian's website linked to a post she did from earthquake-stricken Japan.

But her readers are loyal: some are fellow web trailblazers who have been following her since she started.

Much like an old-fashioned diary, having a 15-year record of your thoughts can be both shameful and wonderful, she says.

"Some of it, I might look back at something I wrote when I was 24, and go 'cringe, cringe', but then it's like 'Well, no, that's what I was like back then'. I've just got to accept that."

Gallagher's output fluctuates. She aims for one decent post a week. She writes most when she's doing less paid work. And she's not just active on her blog either - she has other web projects including a sort of personal scrapbook on Tumblr (a multimedia social networking site) and writing 5000ways.com, a project to review Kiwi music videos funded by NZ on Air.

Blogging does have its challenges as a form - it's been somewhat sidelined by social media, she says.

"It's harder to get an audience. It's harder to feel like maybe you're being heard. Because everyone's on Facebook. And Twitter - the first year I was on Twitter, my blogging productivity rapidly declined, because a lot of stuff I would've turned into a blog post instead was a 140-character tweet."

But she doesn't think the blog is dead at all. In fact, for those who've been at it a while, who understand what's involved in consistently writing new material, it has still got a unique pull. It is almost like a craft, she says - something to do, to get steadily better at, for the sheer enjoyment of it.

"I can't think of any reason I would stop doing this. It is too much fun."

- The Dominion Post

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