“What I love about floors is that they love feet”

That’s a line I particularly like from a poem by Space Bar, the newest contributor to Rave Out. That section’s coming along rather nicely, I think, and the already-healthy contributors list will have a couple of new additions in the next couple of weeks that will make it rock even more. Watch that space.

And yes, just as floors love feet, my keyboard loves my fingers. Such is the level of obsession there that I fear that such a love affair can only be doomed. Its offspring, of course, exist for your pleasure.

Update: You can pick up RSS feeds from here.

On debate and blogging

Oliver Kamm writes in the Guardian that “parasitic, political blogs tend not to enhance but poison healthy debate.”

Well, I’d point out here that debate tends “not to enhance but poison healthy debate.” That’s the nature of the beast. Open debates, especially, tend to degenerate into incoherence, particularly on the internet, where anyone can enter a conversation, and anonymity enables trolling.

Despite that, I’m not sure what to make of this proposal to have codes of conduct for bloggers. All bloggers already have implicit codes of conduct for themselves, manifest in the way they blog and moderate comments and so on, and their credibility and readership derives from that. I’m skeptical of a formally stated code of conduct, and don’t think it would serve any purpose. Except for debate.

(IHT link via email from Arun Verma.)

I’m on the court

Jimmy Wales is asked, in Time Magazine’s “10 Questions” section, why people contribute to Wikipedia. Is it altruism? He replies:

It’s realizing that doing intellectual things socially is a lot of fun—it makes sense. We don’t plan on paying people, either, to contribute. People don’t ask, “Gosh, why are all these people playing basketball for fun? Some people get paid a lot of money to do that.”

Bang on. Also, please stop asking me if I make any money through this website. Bounce bounce bounce.

Guilt. Despair! Panic!

So much to do, so little time. On a regular basis these days, I go through the cycle mentioned in the headline of this post. I wake up in the morning (somehow!), get to work, and soon fall behind schedule. Sometimes non-IU work does not allow me to post on this blog until lunch: immense guilt then comes. (As I mentioned here, guilt is a key reason for the frequency of my posts.) If, FSM forbid, I cannot blog by evening, despair sets it. And if the sun sets and the blog is still showing yesterday’s post, panic happens. I go on the internet then, and feel paralysed. What to blog? How can I make up for an entire day gone by?

Pretty much the same phenomenon happens with email as well. Often, when I am travelling, even if it is for a day, the emails pile up. So I use the immensely useful functionality that Gmail has, of starring a mail. The action is supposed to be my way of telling myself, “This is important and I will reply to this email later.” But the message that effectively gets communicated is, “You don’t have to worry about this right now. Chill. Do something else. You can come back to this.”

And, of course, I never do. If fact, the starred mails are so many, and so guilt-inducing, that I’m in denial much of the time. I do not dare to click on the folder. Panic arises at the thought, and alternates with resignation. No doubt I have lost many friends in this way, and upset many readers. Sigh. Weep. Wail.

It has to be said, though, that readers of my blog have less cause for complaint than those who correspond with me. I am, after all, writing a post now—not an email.

Also see: An earlier post on this predicament.

Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.

Bloggers have a community as much as drivers have a community. Would you ask a random person in a car, “So sir, what do drivers feel about abortion?” You wouldn’t dream of doing that, because you know that drivers are just individuals who happen to drive cars. And yet, we lump all bloggers under one convenient label.

And we have many convenient labels like that. Imagine someone saying, “Some Indian bloggers have been seen cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches. Therefore, all Indian bloggers are anti-national.” Or “Some bloggers burnt a train full of drivers, therefore we drivers will slaughter all the bloggers we can find.” Or “Bloggers have been discriminated against in the days before the internet, when they didn’t have access to any readership, therefore we will reserve a set amount of newspaper space for them.”

Would it not be equally ridiculous to take a poll of bloggers, find out that the majority prefer to use the blogging service Blogspot, and then force all bloggers to use only that service? “This is the will of the bloggers,” you could say, or “the bloggers have given their mandate.”

The above examples sound ridiculous, but you would have recognised the references. We tend to think in categories, and ignore individuals in the process. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this can be a useful cognitive shortcut: classifying things into groups of things helps us make sense of the world. But it has its perils when we take it too far.

And we do. Millions have been killed citing the good of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ and so on. Every day, individual rights are trampled upon under the guise of the good of ‘society’ or ‘community’. This is a mistake committed on both extremes of the political spectrum, both by ‘pseudo-secularists’ and those who have coined that term.

The Hindutva parties in India and their supporters do this all the time when it comes to terms like ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ and ‘Pakistan’ and so on. Claiming to speak for all Hindus, as if that is even possible, they whip up hatred against Muslims in general citing the acts of particular Muslims. They demonise Pakistan and Pakistanis because of the acts of its government, as if that government is a representative one. They oppose globalisation in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, as if those two things lie preserved in a glass case.

The Left parties aren’t behind. How much generalising do they do against ‘multinationals,’ ‘imperialists,’ ‘upper castes,’ ‘the middle class’ and so on? They praise democracy but speak darkly of ‘free markets’ as if they represent anything other than individuals being empowered to make their own choices. They claim to speak for some mythical beast called ‘workers’, though all their policies harm individual workers, and as if workers aren’t also ‘consumers,’ a kind of beast that they don’t quite like.

The classic example of thinking in categories gone wrong is our reservations policy. Under the pretext of clearing up historical wrongs done to one group of people by another, we effectively redistribute opportunities and resources by taking them from one bunch of individuals and handing them to another. Some individuals suffer, others get lucky, and that’s all there is to it. What is worse, they actually perpetuate such thinking in categories instead of bringing an end to it, and make the problem worse instead of solving it.

It reminds me of Ayn Rand’s famous quote, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” But do we really care about individual rights, and personal freedom, in India?

Blogs—The New Journalism

The piece below by me appeared on January 19, 2005 in the Indian Express as “The world according to me”. That headline wasn’t mine, though. I’d also posted it on India Uncut.

Towards the end of December, just after the tsunami struck, I told a journalist friend of mine that I was planning to travel through coastal Tamil Nadu to report on the aftermath of the disaster. “Ah, excellent,” he said, “Which publication you going to write for?”

“I’m not going to write for any publication,” I replied. “I’m going to blog.” He looked at me incredulously.

“Blog” was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2004, but I bristle at how they have defined the term, and how most people still think of it: as “an online personal journal”. Blogs may have began, in the late 1990s, in that manner, but they have evolved into a powerful new form of journalism, that offers journalists the scope to do things that they cannot do in other media, and that draws discerning readers for just this reason.

I experienced this when I blogged on my journey through Tamil Nadu on my blog, India Uncut. [These posts are now archived at my sub-blog, India Uncut – The Tsunami Posts.] My normal quota of 800 pageviews a day – pretty good for a month-old blog – shot up to over 13,000 a day when I began reporting from the coast, and my 10 days of reporting from there got me over 100,000 pageviews, thus demonstrating the power of word-of-mouth on the internet. And the efficacy of this new form of journalism.

Here are some of the ways in which blogs stand out from other journalistic media:

One, a blogger has flexibility of space. In a magazine or a newspaper, a journalist is constrained by length – he can’t write too much and, in instances where he might want to share a vignette or a telling observation, he can’t write too little. On a blog, that isn’t an issue.

Two, a blog can contain multitudes. Whenever I write about something or someone, I can insert hyperlinks in my text that allow the reader to go deeper into whatever it is I’m talking about. For example, an obituary of MS Subbulakshmi in print allows you to read just what one writer has written, but an obituary on a blog can link the reader to pieces that expand upon different strands of her life. It can link you to audio clips of her singing, to pictures of her online, to profiles written on her, all without breaking the narrative flow of the text. As a reader, I feel empowered by that. A print journalist can tell you about a journey, but a blogger can take you on one.

Three, a blog has immediacy. When I reported on things that I saw in Tamil Nadu, I did not have to file a despatch to some editor somewhere with a time-lag of hours before it appeared. I could post it on my blog as soon as I finished writing it, from where other bloggers linked to it, and quoted from it, around the world, well before the next news cycle began. Even television reporters do not have such freedom – and video-blogs might well be the next wave.

Four, a blogger has the option to adopt a much more personal tone than a journalist can. Most print publications have a house style which journalists have to adhere to, but on a blog, he can express himself as he wishes, which, in turn, increases the degree of familiarity that readers feel towards him.

Five, blogs are often interactive. An article in print is a journalist talking to a reader. A post on a blog, on the other hand, can be the starting point of a discussion. Discussions on sites that have comments enabled, like AnarCapLib and The Examined Life, are often intelligent, informative and enlightening, with the readers adding enormous value to what the blogger has to say. Everybody learns, and grows, in the process.

I find it odd that so many of the news stories on blogs in 2004 focussed on a “Blogs v Big Media” storyline, which makes for an interesting peg, but is misleading. I don’t think that there is a conflict between blogs and any other journalistic medium. Just as TV did not kill print, blogging is no threat to either print or TV. On the contrary, it enhances both the breadth and depth of the coverage that journalism provides and, as one-day cricket did to Test cricket, it might introduce new skills and values to the older forms of journalism. That can only be good for the reader, and that is all that matters.

Welcome to India Uncut

After much delay, let me finally welcome you to India Uncut!

I first discussed the blueprint of this site with MadMan, who has designed and programmed it, in March last year. Immense procrastination ensued, largely on my part, but we finally got round to working on it a couple of months ago. A brief introduction to each of its sections follows below, taken from my detailed note on how this site came to be and what it contains, “About India Uncut.