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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Why Tiny Perfect Blog was Anonymous is as Important as Who Tiny Perfect Blog Was.

What are we to take from the hasty retreat of Tiny Perfect Blog from cyberspace? Graham Thomson's column today adds some valuable perspective. Lots of people have been nosing around trying to uncover the true identity of TPB. It all seems like some kind of cyber scavenger hunt in search of a virtual prize of discovery and disclosure.

There is a growing "consensus" as to who it is but that is mostly driven by speculation and without any substantial evidence. That speculation will likely coalesce into urban myth and become reality in the mind space many who care about such things - regardless of the absence of substantiating facts. The lawyer in me simply wants the facts to be determined before the conclusion is reached. But in the court of public opinion that is not always the way things are decided.

The larger context around why TPB went into a self-induced virtual witness protection program is worth a few reflections. The rise and rapid growth of social media and the power shift of influence going from institutions to individuals is a significant social, political and emerging economic change. That is the larger backdrop to the legend of TPB. TPB had an audience and some influence so who was actually behind the blog has/had relevance.

Social media sites like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Youtube are influential creating phenomena, each in their own right. I want to focus this post on the social media influence of blogging because TPB was, after all, a blogger. Blogging exploded a few years ago with millions of new blogs coming out of nowhere and showing up everywhere. Blogging was one of the earlier indications of this shift of influence from institutions to individuals who could now actually impact public agendas and how power was being exercised, especially political power. Remember the Drudge Report and Monica Lewinsky?

The blogosphere was and still is the "wild west" in many ways. It has settled back and now there are many abandoned and vacant blogs as the fad phase has worn off. Many early blogger left the scene as they came to the realization that it is hard work, demanded time and took discipline. Those political bloggers who have persisted, and now still prevail, have found and created significant audiences that are growing and becoming more engaged. Traditional media now references and relies on us almost as much as we reference and rely on them.

Both traditional and new mediums are adapting to grapple with this shift to horizontal interactive networked connectivity. The old media model of vertical integration, one-way communications, gatekeeper control of the political information and the public agenda is proving obsolete and uneconomical. Newspapers are having the toughest time adapting. Conventional television is also struggling. Private radio vacated much of the news gathering mode years ago when it turned to "talk" formats that are usually more voluminous than luminous in their content and news approach.

Political blogs are changing dramatically too. I really only know about Alberta so I will concentrate my comments in that context but I expect some observations can be generalized. There are fewer and fewer active political bloggers in Alberta these days. A scan of the Alberta Blog Roll sidebar of this blog will underscore that fact. Alberta political blogging is now "maturing" in marketing terms but I am not so sure that is as true in content and context terms. That lack of content and context maturity for blogs brings us back to consider Tiny Perfect Blog and the circumstances and apparent reasoning for the abrupt removal of the blog site.

I will not cover the same ground Graham Thomson did today and I will try to focus on the implications for blogging as a legitimate activity in support of a vibrant effective democracy. Mostly I think the TPB demise underscores the need for more citizens to learn some media literacy, especially in the social media realm, and with political blogs in particular.

Polls tell us traditional media has forfeited much of its presumption of authenticity and authority as a reliable new source. Many think political blogs never had any such presumptions about its reliability and authoritativeness. I think that was true back in the day, but it less true today. I see surviving political bloggers becoming more prolific, noticed, read and trusted as they move towards a more fact based approach in their posts. I say this not so much as a comment about a leveling of the playing field to the mutual discredit of traditional and social media. It is more of a comment to show the need for readers and viewers to be skeptical and cautious about what they choose to believe and what they rely on from all media sources, traditional or social.

When it comes to social media sources, and bloggers especially, if they are anonymous you have to wonder if they can be trusted and relied upon. A blog has to have a voice, a perspective and a lens to make it worth reading, becoming engaged with and even commenting on. Bloggers are more about providing commentary and observation than publishing hard news. There are exceptions when every now and then a blogger will "break" a news story. But for most of us that is not our goal. We do not want to be reporters. We are more akin to columnists and editorialists.

So if you don't know the identity of the person behind the voice, their perspective and their personal lens on the world, why would you believe anything they are saying? Given the content and context of the TPB posts and how they quickly slithered away once someone threatened to lift up the rock they were under, you tend want to question to motives of the person who wrote the blog. A cone of silence is around TPB so my guess is we will never know. For the record I don't know who TPB is/was and I would only care if that blogger's anonymity was used as a sword and not a shield. There are many unanswered questions about that concern for sure.

I know the true identity of a number of anonymous or nom de plume Alberta based political bloggers. I have lifted an enjoyable pint with many of them on many occasions. They have identified themselves to me in confidence and I will respect the confidence because I know that they may very well need the shield of anonymity to protect them.

As Daveberta is quoted in Graham's column, this is not China or Iran. BTW if you are Albertan
and don't know who Daveberta is you also must be living under a rock. However there are many powerful forces who find themselves in the blogs. Many are thin skinned, some tend to be bullying and some can even be very vindictive. Just look at the recent declaration of the new health super board that aspires to severely limit the free speech of those citizens working in the Alberta health care sector. You can see why some people in Alberta feel the need to have a shield in order to exercise their free speech rights. Sad but true.

In contrast, after many journalists and apparently some unionists, were trying to determine the true identity of TPB, we have to note that no one has yet been successful. According to Graham Thomson, the only one, so far, who acknowledges that they know the true identity of TPB is Edmonton NDP MLA, Rachel Notley. She is on the record as not "outing" TPB for much the same reasons I would not "out" those anonymous bloggers I know - a prior personal commitment to confidentiality. Am I to presume therefore that TPB was in some kind of position that justified the protection of anonymity? But since nothing is being said to indicate or confirm that need for a shield, one legitimately wonders if other factors are at play, especially given how adept TPB was at brandishing a political sword.

So while TPB is gone, we should not forget the lessons we can learn from his/her disappearance and given the circumstance that surround it. So bottom line, don't trust any media source at face value. In particular one should have a very skeptical eye and ear when the source is anonymous. We will not ever see the end of anonymous sources for traditional media or new media. That said, I personally think their credibility should not be taken seriously - not even with a grain of salt. I urge citizens to learn about media literacy and to keep learning, because one thing for sure, the media like the times, they are a'changing.

So, so long TPB, who ever you are/were or aspired to be. You will not be missed and should not be missed. Your 15 minutes of fame are over. Next!