July 17, 2008

Can Blogs and Message Boards Change the World?

I've got a spring in my step today because my soap-boxy letter to the editor was printed in this morning's Honolulu Advertiser. Hooray! As you may have guessed, the topic was the proposed rail transit system (no surprises there), a local news story that has taken many twists and turns in recent days. As I predicted last month, the level of interest in this controversial public works project has soared to new SuperFerry-eclipsing heights which has made it an even more compelling debate to follow.

In the last week alone, the Advertiser has ran at least 11 major articles (most of them on the front page) covering the turbulent clash over the City's rail project. This doesn't even include opinion columns, commentaries, editorials and letters to the editor. On the newspaper's web site, citizen pundits (myself included) have gone full-throttle by posting sharp and fiery reactions of their own. Almost every article on the rail topic has generated well over 100 online comments while some articles (like yesterday's headline story about the anti-rail petition's faulty wording) have even provoked upwards of 320 responses. Taken together, we're talking about more than 1,500 rail transit comments in the span of 7 days!

Granted, many of these entries are posted by a small number of zealous people who submit multiple comments (again, I'm guilty as charged). However, I would imagine that the high number of responses represents only a small percentage of those that read the articles and skim through the reactions to see what people are saying. The typical pro-rail crowd includes the faceless ranks of SugarHippie, kailuaresident, Sheml, rblanton, McLovinTheBS and HapaBear (that would be me) while the anti-rail regulars consist of jaono, Kirkland, honjazzman56, Opposed and Triphesas. I'm not sure whether I'm proud or embarrassed to admit that I've posted 15 pro-rail comments in the last week, but it's hard to pull yourself away when someone quotes you out of context or puts forward an argument that can be easily refuted. Such is the thrill of spirited debate (or the compulsion to have the last word).

After sending off a couple of bleary-eyed pro-rail comments late the other night, my ever-patient wife asked me sleepily, "So are you done changing the world now?" Terrific question. Coming from her, I don't expect anything less. Even in my drowsy state, I was more than ready to dispense a full comment box-worth of answers to any anonymous transit opponent I might encounter in the blogosphere, but I didn't have an easy answer for my wife.

I'd like to think that I can change the world through the communication of ideas, although blogging and message board rants might not be the most effective ways to share them. Which begs the question: Do comments posted in online forums really change anything? How many people who browse through those so-called "reader reaction" pages have already made up their minds? Could the appeal and promise of interactive online dialogue be mostly just an illusion? Is posting your comment or opinion an effective form of web-based advocacy? Or are message boards and news article comment boxes just a ploy to generate more web traffic and advertising dollars for corporations who laugh all the way to the bank? Will my drop in the bucket letter to the editor play any role in the transit debate's outcome?

I will confess that I spend way too much time crafting comments to post on blogs (including my own) and newspaper message boards. The question is why? Do I offer my comments so I can hear people's responses to them, or is it mostly about loving the sound of my own voice? What's the difference between someone indulgently posing in front of mirror to see how good they look from every angle and someone who blogs or posts comments so they can see their name and opinions printed on the pages of a newspaper or website? Maybe blogging is more narcissistic than I thought!

In my very first blog post back in March, I explained why I was starting a blog over joining Facebook. Way back then, my thinking was that that blogging would be more about ideas and reflection instead of a self-centered "popularity contest" built around social networking and accumulating friends like boy scout patches or "pieces of flair" for my online identity. Now that I've had 4 months to experiment with the blogging phenomenon, I'm starting to re-think the whole concept and I'm wondering if it's actually blogging that is more self-focused whereas Facebook (still haven't tried it yet) could potentially be more outward-focused since it enables you to become more connected and aware of others' lives, at least in theory.

I suppose that blogging itself has already changed the world in some ways, just as the course of history was forever altered by technological innovations from the printing press to the typewriter. But even humanity's most clever inventions like the automobile or the microwave have had their drawbacks. I still believe in changing the world through ideas, but as Ghandi said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

It's hard to imagine Ghandi having a blog...

1 comment:

Eman said...

keep changing the world