Sunday, February 03, 2008

Writing on the net !

My friend Sudhir Syal (techie, writer, journalist and great guy- all rolled into one), holds a very dim view of writing on the internet and on blogs in general. He is right to a large extent.

I am reproducing a comment that he made on this blog once. "I think in life, it's very important to try and be a perfectionist. To perfect an art, to set the benchmark high and to aim for quality. If there is one thing, I hate about the internet, it's the fact that it gives undue attention to talentless pretenders. Pretenders who get away with being ordinary, they can't write, can't communicate, can't command respect on their achievments alone. Why, because on the internet, quality is no longer important. Quality has no value. You scratch 5 peoples backs, they will scratch yours. And it's a vicious cycle, cause none of those 5 have any connotation or intention of ever producing something that's truly quality. And why would they, quality as someone put it is difficult to create and even more difficult to consume. I mean wouldn't it be easier, for you to put sum random photo, talk about some random event and scribble 3 lines in ordinary English? It would. It would be even more easier for 3 ordinary people to come over and put 3 ordinary comments."

But then, 5 minutes back i read this. Fantastic stuff. If you like writing that is delicate and subtle, you will like this. Anil P who mainly writes a very well known Photo Blog (here) is one of my favourite Indian bloggers and a friend as well. Actually he is "the favourite". His style of writing is very unlike mine, 'poetry in prose' is probably a good way to define it. I do not aspire to write like Anil, but I surely aspire to write with the quality that he writes with, albeit in my style (What ever that may be :-))

Mr Syal, you may say that the exception proves the rule and you will still be right - but I say for every 100 average writers, if the Internet can give us one Anil P, its a deal, my friend!

27 comments:

Sudhir syal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sudhir syal said...

Dev,

Thank you for this post. :)

Let me articulate my thoughts a little more clearly.

My point here is that most bloggers dont have any intention of writing like or becoming an Anil P. Why would they? If you get comments and views regardless of what you write, why would you ever want to improve. If your mom, kept saying 'Shabash' to you as a child for everything you did, you would have only rested back and continued to do the same thing.

The fine line between quality writing and 'not-so-great' writing is becoming more blurred every day. So, what's happening is that, people are slowly getting swayed by the judgement of a community rather than themselves. They make conclusions like, "Hey, this blog doesn't seem interesting, but it's damn popular. I better like it, otherwise I will be left out."

Its a little bit of the Emperor's new clothes effect which tends to set in where blogger's like another blogger only because another blogger likes him. Net, net, what happens is that, the actual quality of the writing for most fades into the background. Now, he himself can't recognize what quality is.

So on the web, I think its more 'blogging' then writing. And I think, we must treat blogging separately, as a form of expression, where frequency of posts, indexing on google, lay-out of the page, no. of comments on others bloggers pages are all in many ways more important than the writing itself.


And if that's the case, so be it. I am also not sure if Anil is such a good example here, cause he was a prolific writter before the advent of blogging. Though, it has given him an opportunity to show his work, I don't know if its fair to say it has produced him or helped him improve.

Good writers off-line will be good writers on-line, not so good ones will remain not so good writers online as well. I don't think the internet can change that.

But then, there is a difference between 'blogging' and 'writing'; fortunately or unfortunately, I guess we try to induldge in the latter. :)

Dev said...

I agree with your views Sudhir. I have two things to say

1. We must get Anil's view on whether his writing actually improved after he started blogging.

2. My view is that the medium (blog) since it breaks the entry barrier to writing (no headaches of publishing)and becasue it enables you get readers and because you also get feedback, helps you improve as a writer.

At least this has been my experience. I can feel an improvement in my writing, as I write more and more. And the blogging medium is helping me write more. So cant I say that the net is helping me improve as a writer ?

Sri - where are u - kya bolta hai ?

Sudhir syal said...

It's helping you write and improve. Like I would like to believe it has for me.

But, I can show you a number of people for whom it has made little difference, because of the same reasons mentioned above.

So, it boils down to the basic questions. Firstly, do you care about becoming better at all?

Secondly, do you want to become a better writer or a better blogger?

The answers to these questions vary from person to person, as it perhaps should. :)

Anonymous said...

Sudhir,

I disagree with your position (slightly). The internet has opened up avenues to people (even less talented ones), who otherwise would not have dared/desired to give vent to their thoughts. When I recollect the "good old days", you had to have contacts in your local newspaper (for eg) to get a point across. Now, you are your own publisher -- you do not have to depend and be excluded from the good old boys network (relatively speaking). Is there a lot of nonsense out there? Absolutely. But, it also means that visitors, like yours truly, have to apply discretion to visit these blogs or not. If Dev did not maintain a quality blog, he would not have people from all over the world visiting it. So, rather than complain about the crass that is out there (believe me, there are plenty of us who complain about the crass in society, even in mainstream institutions :-)), I think it is up to us, as individuals, to visit only those 'quality' blogs.

I'll end my commment with a small anecdote -- a few years back, I was getting p*ssed off with the Times of India's website -- it seemed to me that their entire website was a Page 3 supplement. I was really getting agitated that India's premier media outlet had become cheapened. It finally dawned upon me that it was not as much their fault that they were uploading all this junk but it was MY fault that I kept visiting their website, when, the lead story of the day (just under the masthead) had something to do with Urmila Matondkar going to Pakistan to improve peace or some bull....I could not believe it...it was the final straw for me and I have stopped going to their trashy site since then.

My point is echoing Dev's --an Anil P. would never ever have gotten an avenue if information was dominated by certain media outlets only. The internet has given so many Anil P.s an outlet to express themselves. So, rather than being hoity toity and shifting our focus on the trash (I know I am guilty of it) that's out there, let us not throw the baby with the bathwater -- let us celeberate the Anil P.'s and Dev A.'s of the world. We can have an a la carte approach -- pick and choose the good things to visit and we'll all be enriched in that endeavor.

Sri

Sudhir syal said...

Sure Sri,

That's what we do anyway.

Dev's blog has a focus on quality writing, it gets 'x' pageviews. In a group of 10 blogs, with Dev being one amongst them, on traffic Dev's will probably rank in the bottom tier while on a writing scale he will probably be no.1.

There is no correlation between quality writing and ranking / traffic. Ranking / Traffic relates to credit to the writer.

A poor writer however would earn no 'credit' in the off-line world. That's the difference.

Though, you are right in saying that the internet has been phenomenal in opening the floodgates. This is one of the side-effects, I guess.

Dev said...

good contributions sudhir. thanks for taking the time out.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Nice debate going on here... I found this post easier and more inviting to comment than the earlier one...

What is your definition of Quality? The way the content is written? Complexity of words used? Usefulness/value of the information provided in the writing? The thoughts it might have triggered?

Quality being subjective it is tough to dictate. Suppose I am looking for a specific information: how much item X is costing... If a blog can give that information in one line- Item X costs Rs. XYZ I call it good blog vis a vis a blog which might have written excellent description of the product with price information hidden somewhere deep. Here the useful ness of the info counts. If you may call a blog which has two page well written content as high quality blog, but if I dont have time to read so much I might simply skip that altogether...

So measure of quality differs and it may not be fair to say "Dont write anything unless you're sure it is a high quality content"

Anonymous said...

Shrinidhi,

Amen brother -- exactly what I was trying to convey to Sudhir -- esp the "highest quality" content. As you rightly implied, it is all relative.

Sri

Anil P said...

Dev, you must be laughing away to glory after opening a pandora's box no less :)

Firstly, thanks for your comments on the Gandhi piece for, it's always a pleasure to know that a post 'connects' in a way it hoped to.

Srinedhi has come up with a valid point no doubt. Every discussion on quality comes with a context, else we would not place a 'textbook' separately from 'literature'. Facts have an utility value, and fulfill a purpose, mostly immediate, whereas literature is enduring, providing bearing at an emotional level. Facts are usually a compilation, requiring skills defined by a certain objective as say, a need to provide the price for an item or some such thing. 'Literature' goes beyond facts, instead it uses facts to weave a facet to an experience. Facts can be had from multiple sources, while experience, when written skillfully, will connect uniquely even if the facts it relies on have been flogged to death by a thousand others!

Even while I agree with Srinedhi when he says 'Quality is Subjective', it may not be as cut-and-dry. Often when we look for quality, especially content, we either look for facts, or for insight, sometimes both. For example, Dev's take on the Bhajji affair. Endless reams have been written on it, most of us who care enough already know the facts, so the only reason anyone would want to read what Dev wrote would do so to know what Dev brings to the table in terms of value, his insight on the affair. Likewise, a travel guidebook will provide information and facts like would a thousand other guidebooks, but a Joseph Mitchell travel narrative will bring a fresh insight to the facts, weave them into an experience that is vivid and real, identify facets and connect them together to provide a fresh perspective, touch chords in the reader, sometimes sentiments, and eventually craft a masterpiece which if not for Joseph Mitchell would never have been created. When we talk of quality, unless we specify it in context to a mere compilation of facts, we usually mean 'what's the value the author brings to the table?', in other words 'what's unique in what the author says, and how enduring is it as in the chords it strikes in the reader?'. Implicit in this is 'quality'.

Then there is the writing itself, the style, with grammar a given. Moreover, stating facts is different from weaving facts, the former aids 'knowing', while the latter stimulates 'experiencing', again an exercise in 'originality of perspective'.

Blogs are often referred to as 'User generated content', implicit in this defnition is a certain expectation of an author-specific perspective as opposed to mere compilation, and yes, written engagingly for reading pleasure, and correctly in terms of language, all parameters that define quality. Not that this is mandatory, but it helps in defining a character to your content that is uniquely you. And I believe, Sudhir, might've been meaning some of the above, if not all, when he shot his take on quality. Moreover, when quality becomes subjective, among other things, one of the parameters factoring into the equation is the limitation in the reader's 'receptivity' to quality of content, which is not to cast aspersions on their overall ability, but that limited to matters concerning content.

Having said this, it is important that people write. I would rather have unique facts recorded than being lost for want of an ability to articulate them in Queen's english!

Sudhir syal said...

Hi Shrinidhi,

That's an interesting perspective. I think implicitly here we were referring to blogs which contain literary content.

Subjective blogs on products can no doubt be treated differently. And the measures for quality here are different, I wasn't referring to these.

Though, I'd like to offer a different perspective. If I was looking for the price of a product, I wouldn't go to a blog at all.

I would go to the store :)

Sudhir syal said...

Hi Anil,

I couldn't agree with you more. You have summed it up perfectly. I agree with all your points.

Being a good writer, does have some advantages in the online world after all :)

Though, I'm only a little sad that this debate will now peter out.

Let's find something else to debate about!

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Sudhir,

You said you would go to store... But consumers today prefer to google things first before leavig their office to buy something...and a bloggers words are taken more seriously than a commercial website, because the former often gives unbiased opinions/feedback while the later is obviously designed with commercial motive of selling the product.

Sudhir syal said...

Hi Shrinidhi,

Consumers prefer to do research. But sometimes, bloggers give a more biased view than the stores themselves.

This is because technically bloggers aren't trained to give reviews on absolutely everything. When I bought a camera, I read reviews from professional camera reviewing sites, when I watch a movie, I read reviews from Movie reviewers, this is cause these guys have invested time in learning these respective fields and hence hold more authority on the subject than a regular joe.

A lot of times, bloggers write reviews which are purposefully hard-hitting for their own personal motives... and this is dangerous.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

I think that can be best left to the judgement of consumers...

Consumers are smart enough to distinguish an unbiased review from reviews written with commercial/personal motive.

Anonymous said...

Shrinidhi & Sudhir,

If I may share one experience....there is a public affairs channel called C-SPAN that basically airs a lot of politicial and public affairs matters in the US. Over the past few years, esp after 2004/5, I have noticed these two differences in points of view re: blogs vis-a-vis journalismquality of writing/etc. One school of thought is the one propagated by Dev A/Shrinidhi/myself that basically celebrates the breakdown of the monopoly of certain elites, on control of information, editorial opinions, etc. I clearly see that streak in Shrinidhi's posts and my own views. However, I have also seen (inevitably people who are older and who belonged to the erstwhile Big 3 networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and/or mainsteam media -- NY Times, Washington Post, etc) the other point of view that basically looks down upon this medium of expression, implying that it is somewhat "cheap" and almost as if only certain people have a more wholesome grasp on the world's events and developments and that all blogs are highly subjective/biased, etc.

I see this clear delineation in these somewhat opposite points of view. Very interesting. By the way, since 2004, blogs have become extremely powerful tools in US politics -- information control is no longer the domain of a few individuals. One of the good things because of so many outlets of expression is that more people are participating in their democracy -- there have been record turnouts in the various primaries in 2008. I firmly believe one of the reasons is because people are so much more aware of what is going on in Washington and beyond. People with different ideological bends are getting a chance to spout and sicuss them, thanks to teh internet. They do not have to look at commentators of certain media outlets only. It has become very decentralized. Which brings me back to Shrinidhi's last point as to the "smartness" of consumers and let them decide what is good for them -- this is what free markets and democracy are in the their true sense -- they are bottom-up and not top-down. That is a seismic shift in the way things are going to be run in the future.

Sri

Sudhir syal said...

Forget unbiased reviews Shrinidhi.

What qualifies a lot of bloggers to give reviews of products they have sometimes never used? More so, they are so many stories of bloggers being paid to give reviews.

Anyway, my point here is that with so much 'free' content around, a lot of times a user is being mis-led rather than led.

Consumers are smart enough - I really don't think so. Most consumers don't have enough time, they read whatever comes up first. I don't think all consumers are trained with an eye to detect writing style to see which one has been doctored and which hasn't.

Both can exist. But, I would personally rather go to a specialist, if I were buying a music system, I would read a review from a sound engineer, a painting - a review from a professional art collector and so on.

Those who prefer reviews from bloggers, hey that's great. But it doesn't guarantee that it will help you make a better decision.

Sudhir syal said...

Hi Sri,

Thanks for that. I'm a big backer of the positive effects of blogs as well. And it's great to see how they are being used in the U.S.

Though, I think we are losing track of the discussion here. I never stated that writers of not good quality should not write. Nor did I ever state, the lack of effectiveness of blogs as a medium.

All I'm saying here is that a good writer does not stand a very good chance of gaining his due attention on the web because of a variety of other factors in place. On the other hand, it is possible for a good 'blogger' who might not very good at writing to gain that attention.

The danger is when blogging is considered as writing, which implicitly means that in a way mediocrity is rewarded over quality because of the power of crowd sourcing.

This is my point here. Also let us not please discredit those who write for the NY Times, the Washington Post or any other newspaper. Ask any blogger, he would give an arm and a leg to get published by them. A NY Times journalist can start a successful blog in 3 weeks, but I don't see the opposite happening.

Also - I don't think Dev has expressed his opinion after he posted, so it's not fair to assume his support of anything here.

Its a good debate. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hello Sudhir,

I am not discrediting any bloggers from the Times or the Post but I do have an *issue* with anyone who wants to maintain their domination over information control (for eg -- our Doordarshan News babus could shape information to suit to the ruling party's needs, upto couple of decades ago). These elites could do so for all these years and could shape opinion of the average Joe without being adequately challenged. Thanks to the internet, these pundits do not have the same authrotity and power that they once did. Also, talk of a lot of these elites readjusting to the demands of the marketplace........many of them have their own blogs. How cool is that?!! Since they do not *dominate* any more, they are wise enough to step out of their ivory towers and are instead *participating* in the discussion/debate process.

If you recollect, it was conservative bloggers who challenged Dan Rather of CBS and his story on Pres Bush's service as a reserve. Just check this out:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rathergate

There have been other instances too. For eg -- the infamous Macaca comment that cost Sen George Allen his election seat two years back. Who would have thought that an Indian-American college student with a simple camera would bring down a very powerful Republican Senator in Virginia. Check this out:

http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/07/18/youtube.effect/index.html

My point is, to assume that NY Times and WA Post do not have any bias is naive and ludicrous. We have internet bloggers who are constantly challenging powerful people and institutions.

To go back to an old post of Dev's re: what we are teaching the West and what we can learn from them, I strongly feel to flatten the power structure in India, I can't wait for the day when our politicans (and judges and media personalities and others)get challenged by bloggers and YouTube-ers. We will all be more empowered as individual citizens. We will be directly involved in shaping the debate on various topics in our nation, instead of allowing the flow of information to be top-down, as it is now. We're getting there is my optimistic opinion...

Again, there are several blogs that are top-notch in quality. All we have to do is go to them and enjoy them. If there is a blog that one doesn ot like, all it takes is not to go to them. Sounds simple :-) As Shrinidhi implied, it boils down to each and every one of us, as individuals. Is that cool or what? No more of this nonsensical George Orwellian 1984 stuff.

Sri

Sudhir syal said...

Hi Sri,

I wish it were as simple as reading what you like and not reading what you don't.

But I'm talking about valuation of writing here. A well connected blog without content has 'value' here, whereas in the real world it does not.

Implicitly on crowd sourcing, others recommend this well connected blog and those who are really unaware begin to think this is the way it should be. Mediocrity is celebrated.

This can happen only on the web cause and it would be the same if like writing, art was also put up on the web.

This is my opinion of a hypothetical scenario and is the crux of the point I make.


Thanks

Dev said...

WOW ! What a debate. I think the comments section of this post are far far more useful than the post itself. Some amazing discussion here. I have a view on the debate, but i just dont have the time right now. Promise to get back in 12 hrs with it.

A small flag - "Are we getting a bit out of context with Sri and Shrinidhi taking the debate into the usefulness of blogs in general ?" Let me tell u Sudhir himself is a blog evangelist and its a bit like preaching to the converted :-)

In my view the issue is about Writing - the art ! More later - gotta run.

Dev said...

At some level the quality assessment of both "Blogging" and "Writing" are subjective. At the same time, the vectors in which the assessment happens are quite dramatically different. I think a good quality blog is one where the blogger is able to engage with people because of who he is and how relatable he is. The main ingredient of the quality assessment here does not (and need not) be about the writing at all. The Blogging space is a social networking space and it’s OK with me if some bloggers are very popular even though their quality of literary writing is not great. This is true for the offline world too - Why would Tabloids and Page 3sell otherwise?

Literary writing quality cannot be even discussed on the same plane as Blogging. It’s a different game. Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2006 says, 'Over time, I have come to see the work of literature less as narrating the world than as "seeing the world with words”. From the moment he begins to use words like colors in a painting, a writer can begin to see how wondrous and surprising the world is, and he breaks the bones of language to find his own voice. For this he needs a paper, a pen and the optimism of a child looking at the world for the first time.’
Readers of literary work (even if it is literary fiction) are able to see this in the writing of great authors I think; they are able to assess this quality. Yes, it is subjective and you may say that one author is better than the other and I may disagree – but if we are both readers of literature – we would both see the “quality” in both these writers.

The assessment of quality in both Blogging as well as writing will be subjective, albeit, in their own separate planes with different rules governing even that subjectivity.

Coming to Sudhir's original point, I have no problems with very poor writers being very successful bloggers as long as the plane on which they are playing is not the literary writing plane. I know of many such blogs and I thoroughly enjoy them for what they are (The writing in most of them is atrocious- but there is always some thing else that takes me there). I do not know of too many blogs whose reason to exist is their promised literary value and who are very successful (in terms of comments/hits etc) and yet write very badly. I like Sudhir, would have a big problem if I see a large number of such instances emerging, like Sudhir ostensibly has – till then, I am cool and happy celebrating Anil P.

Sudhir syal said...

Very well summed up Dev.

The popular 'writing' blogs they are on the internet have been save a few exceptions, by and large my sample space for forming this opinion.

Let's leave this debate now for a year or so, till you've explored the blogging field in some more detail.

If it has begun to bother you, my original point holds good. Else, I will put my hand up and say that it's perhaps an over-reaction. :)


Thank you for igniting this insightful debate and discussion!

Dev said...

The debate and the quality of comments on this particular post has made me extremely happy and proud that I started writing my blog in the first place. Thanks all.

Anonymous said...

Sry everyone, but i cudnt keep myself from expressin my view. Syal sir, damn i agree with u completely! ppl can disagree if they see ur views in parts. but the whole thing n the actual msg u tried to put was ,to me, ACtually rite..
id like to add, that the scope of this msg is very wide, n not jus limited to blogging. iv been in the rock scene for sometime, n iv had close contact with all kinds of musicians at all levels. iv seen a damn gud guitarist play bful blues melody lines but the crowd reacting very neutral.iv seen boys play very easy to play chords on guitar n sing along famous songs n get all kinds o cheers from the crowd. majority of the crowd was happy with the simple (& popular) stuff, n they never understud the quality/expertise of that blues guitarist. this is just being mainstream. the and the worst part is , that the crowd wud appreciate the boy who played that simple n popular song much much more than the blues man.their understanding of music made their perception of quality low....

Anonymous said...

true - "quality as someone put it is difficult to create and even more difficult to consume"

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