Blogging subjects are as numerous as the number of bloggers out there. Such variety – accompanied by the freedom to write anything – is not without some pitfalls though: this is a veritable free-for-all space where sometimes facts are the single most important casualty.
Every evening, Asad, a financial consultant based inKarachi, comes home from work and opens his web browser which has 10 ‘favourited’ or bookmarked sites. Eight of the 10 sites are blogs. “It’s a part of my routine,” he explains — as much as watching television or reading the newspaper. “When you read the paper in the morning, you mostly know about what has happened since it is about the previous day.” In the evening, an entire day’s events await Asad online in the form of news and analysis; television just doesn’t afford him the same selection and flexibility to get what he wants and cut out the rest.
Asad doesn’t write or blog. He is just an avid reader. For people like him, the ever-expanding world of Pakistani blogs is a Godsend —offering insights into everything, from a new mother’s complaints and travails to presidential controversies. Blogs, indeed, are playing an increasingly larger role in the lives of many professionals who, like Asad, have access to the Internet.
It is, of course, not just about the personal and the political. There are several other categories of bloggers, from those who write about cupcakes to those who blog about cell phones, laptops and other gadgets. Before making an expensive electronic purchase, increasing numbers of readers go to technology blogs to receive and give opinions and share experiences regarding the use of a particular gadget, instead of relying on official reviews or the salesman’s pitch. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the influence of such technology blogs on purchasing and consumption choices – admittedly not massive in sheer numbers so far – is certainly increasing.
Apart from technology, there are blogs on cooking and baking — and every other imaginable activity. From Ahmer Naqvi, writing as the very popular Karachikhatmal, to the controversial Karachi Feminist or even Owais Aftab famed for his philosophical blog, A Myth in Creation, — blogging subjects are as numerous as there are bloggers out there.
Such variety – accompanied by the freedom to write anything as well the technological flexibility to write it anywhere – is not without some pitfalls though: this is a veritable free-for-all space where sometimes facts are the single most important casualty. The information a blog disseminates can be incorrect or unverifiable or both. Not too long ago, for instance, a website ostensibly working for human rights advocacy and media watch but in reality is dedicated to criticising Pakistani journalists, posted a blog about a journalist and blogger Raza Rumi. “My comments were taken out of context, making me sound like someone I couldn’t recognise,” he says. One of the earliest bloggers inPakistan, Rumi say: “It is the worst kind of blogging that you can do.”
So, it is not without reason that Afia Aslam, the winner of the best diarist at the 2011 Pakistan Blog Awards and the co-founder of Desi Writers Lounge, an online literary journal, says blog-readers must learn to take information gathered online with a pinch of salt. For Sana Saleem, the winner of the best activist blog in the 2012 edition of the same awards, such carelessness about facts in blogging happens because bloggers are citizen journalists who do not have to go through the same kind of rigorous process of fact-checking which professional journalists have to undergo.
Rabia Garib, one of the organisers of the Pakistan Blog Awards, responds more philosophically to the question of accuracy of information in blogosphere. “There is good and bad in everything, be it advertising, design or journalism,” she says, “and just like everything else, blogs will take time to mature.” Like every other medium, blogs will evolve depending on who reads them and how many readers they attract, she seems to suggest.
As the Web turned from the one-way we-publish-you-read media to everyone-publishes-everyone-reads media – or what we refer to as Web 2.0 – the nature of blogging has already evolved, says Garib. “Initially, blogs were meant to be electronic daily diaries” with little to no focus on interactivity and readers’ responses. Web 2.0, however, is making a clear distinction between an average blogger and the change-maker or influential blogger. “Just like television, newspapers, radio channels and journalists, blogs and bloggers survive on the amount of traffic they generate,” says Garib. For her, the “traffic is generated based on the popularity of the blogger” which “is directly linked to the integrity of the blogger.” So, she argues, “responsible bloggers probably won’t dabble in things that jeopardise their integrity because, unlike traditional media sources, the Web never forgets”.
Aslam also believes that the world of blogging has its own in-built accountability. “When you put yourself out there, you must realise that informed readers will read your blog.” You can’t just say anything and get away with it, she says, but “the good thing about blogs is that mistakes can be removed or corrected.”
Umair Javed, who writes a political blog titled Recycled Thought and also used to contribute a regular column to the op-ed section of Lahore-based English daily Pakistan Today, likes to add that carelessness about facts stems from the fact that most blogs start as a means for venting ‘opinion’ rather than disseminating information and his was no different. “I didn’t think anyone would read it.” And then some people start reading the blogs but, in Javed’s opinion, the cliquish character of bloggers and their readers does not produce the kind of internal accountability that others talk about. People read only what they mostly agree with, while refusing to acknowledge the existence of other blogs and bloggers, he says. “The way the Internet is structured, it’s like there are clouds that do not really interact with each other.”
In such an atmosphere, expecting readers to make the writers accountable is wishful thinking at best. Saleem seems to be aware of this. “It’s like a mutual admiration society where people you like will be promoted,” she argues, acknowledging that the virtual-world does suffer from some snobbery where the flipside of admiration – that is unrestrained spite – reigns equally supreme. “If you want to see how blogging is turned into a platform to espouse contempt for someone you don’t like, then look up blogs on opinion pieces or articles in newspapers and magazines,” argues a professional journalist, who writes a regular column for an English daily but wants to remain unnamed. He finds it disconcerting to see several blogs condemning his columns, sources of information, writing style and even the newspaper for publishing his work.
Many bloggers argue that it is not the freedom to criticise that is necessarily the problem. It is the way people engage in criticism: the line of argument simply becomes personal and scornful. A recent example of this is the discussion on social media platforms, following Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar win this February. Though there were some notable exceptions, such as a post by Karachi Feminist on the blog titled Oil is Opium, critics of the director resorted to attacks and comments on her personality, such as her “rich and spoilt” background and her “connections” which she is alleged to have used to win the coveted prize.
“But that’s the beauty of blogging,” says a young mother of two who writes a blog that falls in the genre of ‘mummy blog’. Preferring to remain anonymous, she argues that blogs are mean to be cathartic and should be treated as such. “Most blogging starts as a way to vent, more often than not, the frustration and often negative feelings that people harbour. After you are done, you feel unburdened,” she says.
Another young blogger admits that at the time she started to blog, about four years ago, she was depressed and felt there was no one she could speak to. “It’s like writing a diary. It would ease my mind, and by the end of a blog post, I’d feel like I understood myself a little bit better.” Aslam can verify from personal experience how the interactive nature of a blog can enhance the limits of such understanding way beyond we can otherwise imagine. Having blogged about her nanny woes one day, she received a response from an American woman who criticised her for complaining about such trivialities. When Aslam responded by explaining how things worked in Pakistan, the woman on the other side explained that she was a single and working mother of four. The two women ended up understanding each other, gaining insights into their divergent lives which, given their geographical distance, would not have been possible in the absence of blogging.
The fact is that you blog about whatever you feel like blogging about without the fear of any retribution because you may be writing anonymously, though in some cases anonymity can turn out to be too thin a mask to cover anything. Consider the case of a desperate housewife who is educated but bored because she doesn’t work. She anonymously blogs about her domestic life and issues with her mother-in-law. But certain details are difficult to ignore and you can guess who this blogger might be becausePakistanis so small. It is not like Kaala Kawaa (a well-followed and quaintly named blogger) who talks about politics and can remain unknown because he does not write about his own life.
Whether a blog is written anonymously or under the writer’s real name is something that sometimes becomes the most important factor in determining the credibility or otherwise of a blog and a blogger. Aamna Haider Isani, who contributes regularly to the Herald on fashion, also blogs and believes bloggers who are anonymous should not be taken seriously. If she has a following for her blogs, it is because she is recognised as a credible source of information, or at least this is how her own point of view on blogging explains it.
Some people, therefore, have taken upon themselves to know and let others know the unknown in blogging. Businessman and blogger Faisal Kapadia and popular blogger Awab Alvi have started a podcast, 24/7.com, where they choose an unknown blogger each week and interview him. Kapadia, as well as Rumi, are also concerned that, while the world of blogging may afford writers free space, such freedom of expression can also be misused. “For every paedophile or rapist blogger, there is a sympathiser out there. Cliques of haters can come together and strengthen their hatred online,” feels Rumi. Kapadia feels the absence of cybercrime laws allows bloggers to misquote people, use slanderous language or make private information public. “While the beauty of blogging lies in the fact that the writers cannot be controlled, there should be some rules of conduct among bloggers themselves,” he feels.
Garib concurs. She explains how, under the banner of the Pakistan Blog Awards, she organised more than 30 workshops with Pakistani bloggers. Among other things, these workshops inform bloggers about responsible blogging and introduce them to libel and defamation laws.
Even while the debate about the credibility of blogging seems to be going on indefinitely, her experience of giving away awards for excellence in blogging proves that Pakistani blogs – or at least some of them – are not without value. The number of entries and categories for the awards which have expanded enormously in just one year since 2011 when the first awards were distributed proves that many are not blogging only for personal and cathartic reasons. Similarly, the increasing number of people voting for contesting entries is proof that there are readers out there for whom at least some blogging is a meaningful activity worth their support. The awards this year received 700 entries for consideration in various categories and 150,000 votes for the blogs that were finalised for nominations, says Garib. It appears, then, that some blogging is indeed helping to inform and educate.
Some advocates of blogging insist that it has its influences which far outweigh its negatives. Saleem, for instance, says how mainstream media outlets like the BBC approach her for comments after having read her blogs. Kapadia backs this up by saying that he, along with some friends, managed to collect 2.5 million rupees for the rehabilitation of victims of the 2010 floods, mainly because he asked people to donate through his blogs. Every time he travelled to the flood-hit areas with his friend Alvi, the two would make regularly posts online and people would follow them. Even CNN ended up doing a story on them.
Garib explains this in terms of a blog’s ability to reach a wider audience via social media platforms than the mainstream media can manage through its traditional methods. “Technology is so flexible and agile that the number of people who can be part of an outcry for assistance is enormous.”
It is, indeed, the ability to post anything and everything without any mediation that sits at the heart of what blogging is all about and, undoubtedly, it has proven very effective in many situations like traffic jams, need for blood donations etc. But ironically it is this very ability that many people see as a problem. Should freedom of expression have boundaries? In blogosphere, the answer should be left to the bloggers to find out.
For reader Asad, who shuffles through his favourite blogs one after the other in a given order almost every day, the answer is simple. If the information he reads “bounces” more than twice, he just removes the site from his shortcut buttons, replacing it with another site to make up his 10 daily reads.
Choice on the internet, after all, is just a click away.