by Caterina Barbi
In the era of fake news, 280-character Presidential decisions and the revival of the far right, online platforms and “clicktivism” have become of pivotal importance to the political discourse, as well as to the development of civil society and forms of social engagement. Among the many forms that technology has allowed the latter to uptake, blogging has been one of the most available and exploited: from fashion and lifestyle influencers, of the like of Chiara Ferragni to the Saudi whistleblower (and as such, prisoner) Raif Badawi, blogs offer content on every small detail of our everyday’s life. The openness and the diversity offered in the blogging world pushed me to interview three bloggers from our own ranks: Genevieve Grant, Hamza Bensouda and Safia Southey.
When did you open your blog and what pushed you to do it?
Safia: I opened my blog when in China and had no access to social media. I had been listening to a bunch of podcasts and was incredibly enraged at a number of topics from political correctness to sexual harassment to immigration in the US, and just began to write. As someone who always just mass posts my photos on Facebook, I thought it would be useful to have an organized place where I could put all my best photos and writings. I had wanted somewhere more concrete to put my work and had been told by numerous people that having a blog would make me more hirable, but it took me until I was pretty much secluded in Beijing to actually go through with it.
Genevieve: I started my blog during high school, because I wanted a place to share my thoughts using a longer form, having been frustrated by Facebook and Twitter. It was mostly travel-based, and photo-based, and really only read by family members. However that wasn’t my first time trying out blogging: I had used everything from WordPress to Tumblr to engage with every type of topic from book reviews (14 year old me thought what I had to say about the Great Gatsby was wildly innovative and interesting to everyone) to a blog where I debated trans exclusionary radical feminists, to one where I reviewed “halibut and chips” dishes across the Pacific Northwest.
Hamza: I opened two blogs. The first one was called SectumHamza and the second one is Philosophichamza. The idea for the first one was basically to help people find contents that talks about small villages in Morocco but the second was opened so that I don’t lose all my writings. Sometimes opening a blog has a personal meaning to someone: either because you had a good trip, you want to share memories, spread your ideas or even just leave a small footprint on Internet. For me it was more in the idea of I have to help people and I have to share things that I have, that I feel.
What is the purpose behind your blog? What does it focus on?
H: Good question because I still ask myself this question when I’m writing and I always find out after asking my question “Why not doing it” that the main purpose is raise consciousness. My blog is a third poetry and third opinions, debates and feelings and the last part about anything that relates to what I hear in the streets, in the news or something like that. What I noticed is that the second third interest a lot mainly because it is providing a whole concept, a whole opinion.
S: My blog is a mix of photography and writing, with no clear focus. I was a little too embarrassed to release any personal writings, so it’s currently a mix of political writing regarding gender relations, international politics, and interviews with people in the media world (with a few miscellaneous pieces). I initially wanted it to be a travel blog, but it evolved over time.
G: My blog focuses on my experiences- travel, university, educational, goals. I figure it’s the only thing I have any authority on, and even that is slim. My blog is mine, so it’s most effective and fun for me when it’s personal.
Why do you think people are interested in it?
S: I honestly don’t think people are interested in my blog, but I use it as a place to collect my thoughts and writings. It’s an efficient way to show potential employers my work, both in regards to photography and writing, and I like to believe that if anyone else looks at it, it’s because they want to see and learn about places that they may never have the opportunity to visit for themselves and to learn about different points of view.
H: You should ask that to amazing people like Nas Daily or Lilly Singh because to be honest each blog has it own audience. I opened mine to people that love poetry, singing, reading and debating. What I understood is that a lot of them like to read opinions. Furthermore, the audience depends on the language: the views that I had from USA where essentially on texts that talked about my feelings, my experience while the French one where related to critics of books, movies and essentially something in the news. I remember that “Charlie Hebdo” thing when I wrote that “Hommage pour la vie” in French and received a letter from the President thanking me for helping people. That moment was incredible.
How is your voice unique?
G: I write in long, run-on sentences, I always have, and I hate when people try to edit them down. The way I see it, I write like I speak, especially in the non-academic setting of my blog. I love to write because it’s like a slower debate, and you can express so much if you’re willing to use the words and craft the sentences.
H: A voice is unique only if a voice tries to sound exactly like she is, not following anyone else’s vibrato and using her strings. I’d say that my voice is unique because it’s a mix of reflexion and poetry. It’s unique because I mix genres and ideas and also always go against the wind. That is how it is unique for me.
S: I’ve traveled to a lot of places that most people don’t visit, and those experiences combined with my education on international relations, I think poses a unique view that many people don’t have the privilege of attaining. In terms of my political writing, I try to be quite explanative as many people don’t understand political views that they don’t agree with, so instead of getting angry I try to just introduce a different way of thinking in order to create a dialogue.
What is the power of blogging?
G: Blogging is complicated, because it contains so many micro cultures. In the US, there are Neo-nazi bloggers, and there are moms looking for tips on crafts. There are political activists, and gamers, and food reviewers. Have you ever heard of rule 34? Well rule 35 is that if it exists, someone’s blogged about it. Things that might not pick up traction in a major news outlet – the birth of a child, or a completely controversial opinion- can be published without censure. Hell, my sentences with 5 commas and no clear direction can be published without censure.
The power of blogging comes from an individualism that can’t be found in a newspaper: your own deadlines, your own editing of content and copy, your own goals and direction. But all of that can really easily turn into a negative. Without the structure and rules of real journalism, you have a lot of freedom. This freedom has the potential to produce fantastic work, but it can also lead to malpractice that isn’t seen often in print and web journalism. Everything from grammar to ethics can get blurred when you’re dealing with blog systems.
Blogging is powerful because it feels both important and low-stakes. You know not that many people are reading it, but when they do, it’s a bit of a rush. Some bloggers are reckless about what they put out there.
S: Blogging creates the ability for regular people to articulate their views and experiences in an alternative fashion, without having to worry about the politics of the platform they’re writing on. However, that is also the downfall of blogging – often times people can write factually false articles or promote extremism through their work that some believe should be kept off the internet. There are so many blogs nowadays that people have lost interest in them for the most part, and big-name journalism is still the most common way of getting information. I once got scolded for publishing something on my blog instead of on a bigger name (even the school newspaper), as I was told that if I really wanted people to read what I was writing, I would publish it on a bigger platform instead of a site that had my name on it.
What role do blogs of your kind play in today’s society?
H:Blogs have multiple roles. They help creating debates. One of the most important things about my blog is that I want it to help people understand some of the major problems in Morocco. I remember that one article about Nabil Ayouch who made a movie about prostitution in Morocco and everybody hated him. I wrote an article about it and I had so many questions that I felt like writing a book, a story. It made me meet 30 people in Agadir to talk about it in a café and that was amazing. To see that I can change point of views or at least give my perspective.
G: In all journalism, local is God. We see big media outlets as the pinnacle, but in my experience, if the content of an article, post, or tweet, comes from a faceless, unknown character, no one really believes it, unless it is affirming things they already believed. My goal with my blog is to provide a human face to experiences many may want to write about. For someone who knows me at least as an acquaintance, what I have to say about Cuba is a bit more interesting and credible than what the impersonal Guardian staff article has to say. Blogs with big followings benefit from this too- even if their thousands of followers don’t know them personally, it does create a rapport between reader and writer that doesn’t exist in print and web journalism anymore.
S: Nowadays I believe that political blogs are super important in this age of extremism on both ends. Personal blogs that don’t have to adhere to restrictions imposed by newspapers can instigate political action as well as violence. The entire alt-right movement in the US and the violence that emerged from it can really be traced to individual blogs and similar platforms, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all problematic. There is the issue of free-speech, and I think that blogging is able to fully allow everyone the ability to articulate themselves – something that is especially important in countries where they may otherwise not have that choice.
Do you see your blog as a form of online activism? To what extent, does a concrete and solid framework (as in the case of your blog), affect the impact of online activism?
H: Definitely. Since the creation of this blog, I had to express myself about many different kind of subjects which leaded me to do over 15 meetings, one road trip and talks with these people. A voice cane heard with a simple sentence. Just have a look to Do Thi Minh Hanh story that had to be protected by a police because of what she wrote on her blog. Blogs change the face of the world and surely the way we think and act.
G: Online activism is twitter. It’s Facebook. It’s Instagram. But really, it’s mostly twitter. That is where anything get’s amplified, and now with threads and with hashtags, it’s easier to spread than ever. Activism is best served bite-sized, so social media is God. Blogs like mine are as self-serving as they are serving others, if not more.
Let’s talk hate speech and political correctness, how does you blog engage with opinions and controversial statements? Do you ever find yourself censoring your thoughts/opinion?
S:I try not to, but I definitely do limit what I say. For example, I wanted to write a piece on political correctness – something that I believe in quite strongly and encourage everyone to learn more about – but I knew that I would be attacked for it. I would write the piece if I was able to articulate all my beliefs as well as I would like, however with something as complicated as political correctness that’s incredibly difficult to accomplish. I try to write what I believe in and even use my own experiences when I think it’s useful in illustrating my point, while also trying not to make it completely about myself. Being controversial is important, and creates dialogue which I think is necessary – one of my goals for next year is to be more controversial, and to really inspire people to speak up themselves, even if they completely disagree with me.
G: I don’t think I hold opinions that would need censoring, and if I find myself wanting to explore opinions that are controversial, I go about it in a way that is as balanced as possible. I haven’t seen evidence that unbiased/balanced reporting really exists in the internet age and the age of extremism, so I don’t think I go about it very well or successfully.
Do you think blogging has changed civil society and sociopolitical engagement? If so, how?
G: It’s complicated to separate the effect of blogging from the effect of social media on civil society and activism. I think blogs have been one part of the rise of extremism and echo chambers, because they can be incestuous, especially amongst fringe groups. Because the content and rhetoric goes unchecked, it’s anarchical in a way that can be great, or it can mislead potentially millions of people. A lot of “fake news” and simple rumors originate in circles like this.
S: Oh definitely, people now feel incredibly more comfortable voicing their opinions on politics, even if independent of a recognized platform.
What do you perceive to be the risks behind blogging and sociopolitical engagement?
G: Bloggers risk getting too involved, as I have many times, in arguments that go nowhere. You can lose sight of who the audience is, who you’re going to convince when you’re trying to make an argument. We’re basically baby internet pundits, which can be a rush but it can also grind you down.
H: Jail, hate, fear and death sometimes if you are against a government. But the risks worth it: consciousness, culture, sharing love, education, thoughts, ideas… Culture has no price, in any form.
Is blogging the future of journalism?
H: No and hopefully not ! I like reading newspapers and a newspaper is always a way to centralize all the ideas but also to give an objective point of view. I’d say that the blogs are the specialist of some questions therefore a part of journalism but not all of it.
G: Blogging is absolutely not the future of journalism. Short, short, short is the future of journalism. 5 word summaries in a tweet is the future of journalism. The New York Times Snapchat stories are the future of journalism. Most people our age outside of the political world get their news from these outlets. Blogs are niche. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have value.
S: I think that journalism will stay mainly with established papers and sites, although I do believe that this will move entirely online eventually.
Tell me about the absolute best and the absolute worst of blogging
G: Best: Having your work make an impression. I got a job because my blog made an impression.
Worst: Feeling like a basic b**** for having a blog. It’s pretty cheesy, I agree.
Acknowledgements to Genevieve, Hamza and Safia for taking time to answer my questions