June 16, 2003
Do blogs convert people?

I'm a libertarian, so I hope non-libertarians (or for that matter libertarians who come here for culture as more usually understood rather than for postings like this one) will forgive me discussing this question in a libertarian way. Most of the points I am about to make apply just as much to other sets of ideas ending in ism as they do to my ism.

Like Jonathan Wilde of Cattalarchy, I was intrigued by Patrick Crozier's posting at CrozierVision nearly a fortnight ago now, about how blogging helps (but perhaps doesn't help very much) to spread libertarianism. Since one of Patrick's constant recent themes in conversation with me has been that blog postings sometimes deserve to stick around longer than they actually do, I'm sure that he won't mind this posting of his being linked back to.

I suspect that, just as people often attach exaggerated importance to the particular arguments that converted them from what they used to be to what they are, something similar may apply to methods of communication. It used to be that books were the favourite way to encounter libertarian ideas, given that, then as now but a lot more so, libertarianism was not the daily fare of the mainstream printed or electronic media. Patrick wonders if blogs will ever convert people. My answer would be: give them time. Books didn't convert that many people into libertarians either, not per week, but over the years the numbers nevertheless accumulated. Now, I should guess, there are moments of illumination and conversion starting to happen to blog-readers, and surely with blogs also the numbers will start to pile up. There must surely have been quite a few conversions to libertarianism brought about by Internet chat rooms, simply because they've now been around a little longer.

Conversion seldom occurs only from books, or from blogs, or from any other exposition of the ideas concerned. There is the matter of reality to be considered also. Andy Duncan did a good piece in Free Life which describes the process well, as a to-ing and fro-ing between the passing political scene, and the reading of key books (such as, to name but one, Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lessson). And it is just the kind of piece that might convert someone to libertarianism, both directly through the ideas in Duncan's piece, or indirectly through the ideas in the books that Duncan cites, and potentially stears passing readers towards. Duncan's piece is polite, not sneering, about the ideas which Duncan at first held and then abandoned. It is not a "preaching to the converted" piece, even if it may be mostly the converted, such as me, who actually read it.

I found out about Duncan's piece not, as you might expect, from reading right through Free Life Number 44 until I got to it, when Sean Gabb first informed me about it. I didn't get that far. I found out about it because Duncan embedded a link to it in a samizdata comment where his name was at the bottom of the comment. Having liked Duncan's various comments I clicked on the "Andy Duncan" link, and got to his Free Life piece.

But, and here's my point, this piece by that Duncan was commenting upon was mostly not about libertarianism, except in passing. It was mostly about the confrontation/competition between Open Source Software and proprietary software of the sort sold by Microsoft – Linux v. Windows in other words. Both ought clearly to be allowed, but which is best? That was what most of the debate was about. (Anyone who was interested by my posting on that subject here should also read that samizdata posting, and especially the comments.)

This, it seems to me, is a big part of how blogging is now working its magic, ideologically speaking. Libertarians don't only have interesting opinions about libertarianism, they also know about other things. If you are interested in the Linux/Windows thing then you might well have found that Samizdata comment string quite interesting, even if the question "Linux, libertarian or what?" is of no interest to you, because it also involved discussion of such things as security, the merits or non-merits of Linux GUIs, and the rise of a big commercial presence in Linux-world.

I mean it about the same thing applying to other sets of ideas. Some while ago I did a samizdata posting about the impact of the printing press on Western civilisation, and I vividly recall how the most intriguing discussion I could quickly find on the Internet concerning the impact of the printing of the Bible in local languages rather than just in Latin was, appropriately enough, supplied by some Christians.

If I had been teetering on the edge of becoming a Christian (which I am not, but if …) this experience might have been the final prod that converted me.

The key to all this, it seems to me, is links. Much bloggage may be ephemeral and destined for oblivion. But from it you constantly find yourself linking to statements of principle and to more coherent arguments and expositions, many of which are themselves to be found in blogs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:56 PM
Category: Blogging