On Planet Blog, everyone can be a celebrity

Enraged ex-lovers have taken to posting fake confessions and biographies on websites
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The Independent Online

Until the deadly role of internet bloggers was revealed, the story of Jayson Blair, the lying New York Times journalist, had seemed little more than an amusing tale of media sleaze. Only the other day, a man called Stephen Glass, who was sacked for fabricating stories in the prestigious New Republic magazine, was back in the public eye. His novel, based on these adventures, had just been published and film rights were quickly sold. "I am compulsively imaginative," was the way Glass's fictional narrator explained himself. "I am always speculating, wondering, considering and writing the world around me."

Similarly jaunty and unrepentant, Jayson Blair owned up to being "a total cokehead" and boasted that he "had fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism".

Two of those people, Howell Raynes, the executive editor of The New York Times, and his managing editor Gerald Boyd, were forced to resign. The intriguing part of the story is that it was not other newspapers that did for the two men - journalists tend to be rather circumspect when it comes to matters of press morality - but an irresistible campaign mounted within a relatively new medium, the web log, or blog.

It is estimated that there are over three million blogs actively in use on the internet. Part diary, part opinion column, they are the perfect medium for an age in which everyone must have a say and where no one's view or opinion is inherently more worthwhile than anyone else's.

A few polemical journalists have joined the blogging community - the American commentator Andrew Sullivan claims to have up to 42 million hits, or visits, a month - but most bloggers are gabby individuals, wannabe writers who like broadcasting their opinions and strutting like a celebrity in their own small corner of the internet. On Planet Blog, everyone gets the chance to huff and puff about the issues of the day like newspaper columnists, drizzle on about their private lives like chat-show guests, or direct their readers to other blogs or websites of interest.

The result is wildly, recklessly democratic and, were it not for the fact that most bloggers appear to be rather right-wing, could be described as a cultural, power-to-the-people descendant of the alternative press of the 1960s and 1970s.

Of late, something rather wonderfully predictable has happened. Impersonating writers, bloggers have begun to behave in a writerly fashion, promoting themselves and their work, showing signs of going bonkers, of finding themselves caught between the megalomania of creativity and a niggling fear that no is reading them or understanding them quite as well as they deserve.

Some of them have discovered that writing can have painful consequences in real life, with a whole new area of libel and defamation opening up. Last month, Katy Johnson, whose website recounts how she has been Miss Vermont twice, has founded the Sobriety and the Say Nay societies and has written a book called The ABC of Abstinence, was obliged to go to court to prevent a blogger called Tucker Max revealing distressing details of their relationship, which suggested that, in her private life, the former Miss Vermont had not always said nay.

The verdict in the case was extraordinary. Not only was Max forbidden from mentioning "stories, facts or information, notwithstanding its truth, about any intimate or sexual acts engaged in by Miss Johnson" but he was also prohibited from providing a link from his website to hers. In other words, the judgement was that an internet website, by its nature a medium of public self-advertisement, could also be deemed to be private property - the equivalent of an author having a book published and then banning certain readers from reading it.

It is a confusing, alternative world, Planet Blog, and one with which we shall become increasingly and uncomfortably familiar. Much of what people put on their web logs is not exactly true in the sense that fact comes in a bad third after opinion and the need to be funny, sexy or interesting. Put another way, everything is true but in a fictional, imaginative way.

Just as Miss Johnson may or may not be as abstemious and sober as she claims on her website, so Tucker Max, author of The Definitive Book of Pick-Up Lines, might well not be the stud that he claims to be, but a sad little nerd who never goes out but sits in a bedsit writing fantasies, or a bored middle-aged woman.

It is not only in the courts that the effects of a medium that gives the wildest lie a sort of authority are being felt. The internet search engine Google is now so effective that those who are inclined to caution have taken to running an internet search on their would-be partners. Inevitably, there have already been cases where enraged ex-lovers have posted fake confessions and biographies on websites. The victims are said to have been "googled".

The wider danger is that the dividing line between internet reality and the world in which the rest of us live becomes more blurred and uncertain every day. Perhaps it is no wonder that the journalists who are so "compulsively imaginative" that they have to "write the world around them" are utterly unashamed when their fraud is revealed. On Planet Blog, the proficient liar is something of a role model.

terblacker@aol.com

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