March 31, 2008

Blogging and mainstream media

In his 2006 piece for Hum Blogistani, titled “Blogs will make MSM honest”, Peter Griffin had predicted that blogs would complement the big media, instead of competing with it. Continuing the 2007 Hum Blogistani essay series we present the second essay by Rohit Pradhan that dwells on Indian mainstream media’s perception of blogging. The mainstream media, he blames, remains unapologetically hostile to blogging, dismissing it as a passing fad and as a giant talking shop by people who seem perpetually on the offensive. He wishes that with the maturing Indian blogosphere the MSM chooses the path of cooperation rather than confrontation.

Rohit aka Confused lives in Florida and is a doctoral student in Health Services Research. He discovered blogging through online debating forums and now blogs with the passion of a neo-convert. He is interested in Indian politics, current affairs and of course in news which can be best characterized as just plain weird. He blogs at Retributions and Life is a street car named Desire and is a contributing editor for Pragati. Rohit was also part of the Jury at Indibloggies 2006 event.

Blogs vs MSM

he Indian media’s reaction to blogging has been marked by two divergent trends. On one hand, almost all major Indian media houses, especially television channels, have embraced blogging by hosting blogs on their site while many top journalists utilize popular blogging platform like Blogspot and Wordpress. No doubt, some of the blogs are merely a placeholder for columns; nevertheless, a few of them, at least, carry genuinely interesting articles.

Hum Blogistani!Despite this reluctant embrace, the mainstream media remains unapologetically hostile to blogging as an independent concept. Columnists in the Times of India and Outlook have dismissed blogging as a passing fad; a giant talking shop by people who have little knowledge about real India and who seem perpetually on the offensive. Leading media luminaries like Barkha Dutt have made sweeping generalizations about bloggers as if they are a monolithic voice with no disagreements or divergence of views. While bloggers would be the first to accept the importance and relevance of mainstream media (MSM), it would be hard to find an Indian journalist who would praise bloggers, even in the passing.

The number of serious Indian bloggers can be counted in thousands, yet, it appears as if the MSM thinks that blogging is a serious threat to its future.
Prima facie, the MSM’s unwarranted hostility to blogging is surprising. The number of serious Indian bloggers can be counted in thousands and those who comment on current affairs, MSM’s bread and butter, constitute a miniscule minority. Bloggers remain dependent on MSM for hard news and no serious blogger talks about replacing the MSM, rather, they see blogging as complementary to newspapers and television channels. Yet, it appears as if the MSM thinks that blogging is a serious threat to its future especially by a certain class of bloggers who have the temerity to comment on current affairs. MSM has many times featured personal bloggers or technology specialists, but I am yet to come across an instance when a blogger was quoted on politics, strategic affairs or economic development. An entire one hour episode of "We the People" on NDTV featured only bloggers who write about personal experiences, mainly sex, as if that is what the blogosphere is restricted to! Why?

India has been a proud democracy since its independence in 1947. Yet, it is only in the last two decades that true democratization of Indian society has taken place. Economic reforms have increased the number of Indians able to live above subsistence levels. Old power structures have crumbled, in politics, sports, and business, replaced by those whose achievements are a nod to their hard work and ambition and not family names. Knowledge in this globalizing, modernizing India, more than at any point in her history, is power. The rapidly increasing reach of internet has challenged the traditional limits and controls placed on acquisition of knowledge. Future generations may remember Wikipedia, despite its flaws, as the largest and most successful democratic experiment in the history of humankind. Information is no longer the monopoly of the privileged or solely a function of geographic location.

The MSM however has retained its monopoly in influencing and shaping opinions, the real source of its power and privilege. It may or may not influence electoral performance but it definitely affects public mood. Bloggers have challenged this intellectual hegemony by relentlessly questioning, probing, and critiquing journalists and columnists. In many cases, they have offered alternative stories and policy formulations. The intellectual dinosaurs who continue to cling to a set of archaic beliefs find it extremely unpalatable to be challenged by a group of passionate upstarts.

In the high stake medium of MSM, it would be rare to find a columnist who directly challenges the ideas of a fellow journalist...Bloggers have no such inhibitions.
In the high stake medium of MSM, it would be rare to find a columnist who directly challenges the ideas of a fellow journalist. In this cosy world, The Hindu can sell it self a liberal voice while furiously editorializing in support of the brutal and repressive Chinese regime. It is hard to imagine a Barkha Dutt or Rajdeep Sardesai or even the self-proclaimed classical liberal newspaper calling its bluff; they have plenty of skeletons of their own. Bloggers have no such inhibitions; N. Ram is not likely to be too pleased with Nitin Pai’s brilliant exposure of his intellectual dishonesty. That many such bloggers might be specialists in their own field as opposed to journalists who, at least in India, tend to be generalists simply adds to the discomfiture. It is hard to pretend to be all knowing when arguing with someone who may have years of experience in a particular field. Granted that many such critiques are over the top and the language employed may be too colorful, a fact which the MSM has cleverly exploited to dismiss the dissenters as dysfunctional ranters. Yet, the stridency of the tone cannot subtract from the message. Bloggers may not have won this battle of ideas, that has never anyway been the intention, but there is little doubt that they have mounted a serious challenge.

As the blogosphere continues to grow and develop, the MSM faces two stark choices: It can either continue in its present state of denial or it can accept that bloggers have managed to carve their own niche and are unlikely to disappear. It is a choice between confrontation and cooperation. We can only hope that, for once, MSM would display wisdom and humility.

March 23, 2008

On Jalebis, Jhangris and JPG files

Dear Readers, we flag off the Hum Blogistani Essay series 2007 with an encouraging essay from an expressive Indian expat couple based in US who plead the case of Indian food blogs, equipped for specialized writing on the culinary delights. In their essay they dwell on the variety that Indi food blogs put on show, emphasize on making a distinction between food blogs and recipe sites and eloquently discuss their POV on the much talked about plagiarism issue in food blogdom.

Bee and Jai (nicknames) live in the northwestern U.S. She has a background in media, he in strategy development in the technology field. They're amateur photographers and have serious fitness goals. "We seek to foster a more conscious approach to the food we consume, the thoughts we harbour, and the environment that sustains us. Jugalbandi is our means of reasserting our commitment to a natural, healthier lifestyle, and to a less toxic world.", the couple clarifies.

Food Blogs

n her article in the Hum Blogistani series 2005, Charu Ramdurai made an interesting observation about the limited impact by Indian blogs in the global arena because of the lack of specialisaton "in terms of content or focus". Fortunately, in the food blogosphere, Indians have made a noticeable impact. (We use the term 'Indian' in terms of ethnicity rather than citizenship status, as a good number of popular Indian food blogs come from expats in the U.S. and Europe.)

Hum Blogistani!This validates the importance of 'specialisation'. Almost all these blogs have a narrow, but deep focus on Indian cuisine/s - traditional and modern. Indian food bloggers start out with three distinct advantages:

  1. The language of food is universal, and lends itself to a global audience. Besides, there is a lot of interest in and curiosity about Indian cuisine(s) - recognized and enjoyed as one of world's "mother cuisines". If nothing else, everyone has heard of "curry".

  2. Indian regional and micro- cuisines have depth and variety. There is plenty of space for each blogger to express his/her uniqueness by showcasing family heirloom recipes, regional specialties or personal creations.

  3. We Indians have the advantage of being able to communicate easily in English, helping us reach a global audience.

Most Indian food bloggers are multilingual, and some have regional language blogs in addition to their English ones. Indian food bloggers have, in a short time span of three or four years, changed perceptions about what Indians eat - drastically and for the better.
Indian food bloggers have, in a short time span of three or four years, changed perceptions about what Indians eat - drastically and for the better.

Those who equated Indian cuisine with Mutter Butter Paneer Splutter at Bombay Garden can now see and try out quotidian fare from a Kashmiri, Telugu, Marathi, or Bengali home kitchen.

Blogs acquaint us with the culinary and cultural artifacts of India that are uniquely regional and outside the "mainstream" - with a side of mongrel fusion fare from Indian-Born Confused Americans. Indian food blogs have a global readership. In terms of the quality of content, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best. They host blogging events on a regular basis highlighting south Asian ingredients, regions and a variety of themes. Our blogs have helped us bridge oceans, nationalities and linguistic barriers to form friendships with fellow foodies who have a deep curiosity about our customs and culture. They have yielded insights on cross-cultural culinary influences and similarities - like the Bihari influence on Caribbean cuisine.

Over the past three years, a host of independently published culinary histories have fared exceptionally well. They owe this, in large part, to the visibility and positive reviews generated in Indian food blogs. Some celebrity authors like Suvir Saran and Ammini Ramachandran are bloggers too. See this article describing the symbiosis between Indian food blogging and publishing. In the past, one area where we seemed to lag behind our global counterparts was in the quality of our photographs. They don't call it 'food porn' for nothing. The draw of a food blog often (but not always) depends on how narcissistically it stages and struts its 'stuff'. Of late, the standard of food photography in the Indian foodie universe is to be reckoned with. We, at Jugalbandi, host a monthly theme-based food photography event with participants from across the globe. In the January edition, the first four spots went to Indians.

How many desi food blogs exist? We can state, without exaggeration, that there's a new food blog by an Indian every day. We tried to list them all on our blog roll, then gave up after a while, 'cos it's exhausting. There must be a large number of Indian food blogs in regional languages too.

How important is the role of writing or presentation style in food blogging? How does the description of one 'dal tadka' differ from the other?
Writing and presentation are everything in food blogging, precisely because recipes give not much scope for 'literary expression'.

To us, writing and presentation are everything in food blogging, precisely because recipes give not much scope for 'literary expression'. What sets one space apart from the other is the blogger's personal narrative, unique take on the dish, and how it came about. Dal tadka can be simply be a recipe (as here), or can be accompanied by a glimpse - not so flattering :D - of how desi bachelors live.

Is blog a suitable format for a recipe-site? It may sound bitter but only non-food bloggers tend to look at food blogs as "recipe sites". While the latter (like Bawarchi-com) have their value, food blogs are much more. Many of our posts do not have recipes at all. They are photo essays, discuss how food is grown, or its history. Blogging gives a forum for culinary, literary and photographic creativity that a 'recipe site' doesn't.

When roti is glamorous, can plagiarism be far behind? It is an occupational hazard with all types of blogging, but particularly rampant in the Indian food blogosphere. With individuals, a lot of it boils down to lack of awareness. While copyrights laws do exist in India, they are not strictly enforced. Many folks do not understand the distinction between "plagiarism" and a "copyright" violation, and that a picture can be "open to the public" and have "all rights reserved" at once, or that "hotlinking" is a cardinal sin. With corporate thieves, it's a different story. As a lot of English and regional Indian newspapers go online, they add on a food section. What better place to quickly populate these spaces from, than blogs? Any attempt to contact them is met either by stony silence, or by explanations of how their staff is not conversant with copyright laws. We'd learnt to shrug and move on. Until last year. Yahoo's new language portals in India were brimming with content from Indian blogs. Some voiced their displeasure. Yahoo's response: "Not our problem. Talk to our Indian subcontractor." On March 5, 2007, more than 100 Indian blogs ran an anti-Yahoo campaign. They apologized and accepted responsibility for the stolen content. Shakespeare's work is too old to be copyrighted, but quoting Shakespeare without giving credit to him is plagiarism. Yahoo was guilty of both. They stole pictures, reproduced verbatim whole chunks of posts, monetized work that was not theirs, while asking bloggers to "negotiate" with their subcontractor. If you buy something from Walmart that ends up being defective, they don't give you the number of the guy in China who made it and say, "Talk to him."

Now, some Indian food bloggers send out invoices if their pics show up elsewhere. They contact advertisers to report content theft. They flag service providers. What they don't do is put up with being asked to stop whining and get back to the kitchen, already.