Two Kinds of Control
The Messiah's Tough Love

Germany's Bloggy Backwardness

The Spiegel has a piece (g) called the "The Beta Bloggers" [h/t FJM] on why Germany doesn't have as many good blogs as it should. Few Germans read blogs on a daily basis, and of Germany's roughly 500,000 blogs, only about 200,000 are active.

And many of the ones that are are crap. The Spiegel writers, drawing on both German and American sources, point out a number of problems in the German blogosphere. First, there are relatively few political blogs. Second, the ones that do exist don't do any original reporting or convey new insights; they're generally just platforms for disgruntled Social Democrats/Christians/environmentalists to bitch about some policy or politician they dislike. Third, the German-language blogosphere is filled with thin-skinned malcontents who think that an audience of millions dozens is interested in their childish, invective-fueled online feuds. Fourth, there are relatively few "expert" bloggers -- that is, people who in real life actually have some advantage in knowledge over their readers. There are exceptions of course (you'll find some of them on my sidebar). Overall, though, most of the German blogosphere can  be safely ignored.

Compare that to the USA, the Spiegel authors suggest. Of course, there's all sorts of invective and ignorance in the American blogosphere, but it's also given rise to blogs whose original reporting, thoughtful analysis, or expert insight genuinely contribute to debates over important issues. There are also blogs that serve as potent online rallying-points and fund-raising conduits. Because these blogs are consistently worth reading, they eventually increase in influence to the point where they rival more "official" news sources.  Germany is still light-years behind the USA in this respect, and, the Spiegel suggests, may never catch up.

Do I have theories about Germany's bloggy weaknesses? Did you have to ask?

  1. A national culture of modesty that frowns upon too much self-expression. Americans have the advantage here. They're hardly afraid of looking like fools, and like to talk about themselves. Combine that with a high-level of tech-savviness, and you'll get a profusion of online self-realization. An entertaining example can be found here
  2. German experts, such as constitutional law professors or economists, do not see the point of blogging. Many of them have never even heard the word before. Frequently, they live in tiny, hermetically-sealed little information universes, and have almost no idea what's going on in the big world outside. The ones who do wish to communicate with larger groups generally favor the traditional media, where they can be assured of reaching other members of elite -- and being protected from "ignorant" feedback from ordinary readers, who are "not qualified to have an opinion."
  3. The average German is content to let a select group of experts (that is, the editorial staff of whatever paper he reads) choose the information and views he is exposed to. Generally, people are going to feel the most motivation to broadcast their point of view if they consider it unique -- that is, if they don't tell the world what they think, nobody else will, because nobody else thinks like they do. (See the link in #1). Comparatively few Germans are interested in developing and defending a highly original worldview. That would involve risk, and we know how Germans are with risk...*
  4. Germany's hierarchical, party-driven, elite-dominated political structure doesn't foster the belief that ordinary citizens can meaningfully change government policies. There is a great deal of political ferment and activism in Germany, but it tends to happen at the local level. Since there is no critical mass of people who consider the Internet a tool for positive political mobilization (rather than ranting), there is no real incentive to try to form mass movements or raise large amounts of money on-line. People pass out flyers or organize community meetings here, they don't start websites. And if they do, they don't do it with anywhere near the level of professionalism and sophistication that American bloggers do.
  5. Germany has a tradition of vituperative political disputation that serves as a model for many political bloggers. The political writings of Karl Kraus, Kurt Tucholsky, Bertolt Brecht, just to name a few examples, contain some of the most smolderingly bitter invective that has ever been committed to paper -- much of it entertaining and aimed at deserving victims, I hasten to add. Adopting these writers as models is dangerous, though. The thousands of Kraus-epigones in the German-speaking online world usually just come off sounding pompous and bitter. 

Let me make clear that the above points are all meant to try to explain why things don't happen online in Germany. There's plenty of savvy citizen activism and expert opinion-mongering in Germany, don't get me wrong. It just doesn't happen online.

This is partly a selection problem, similar to what you find everywhere with the internet. The set of genuine experts, gumshoe journalists, and serious political activists still doesn't overlap with the set of internet-savvy people. What's happening in the U.S. is that these sets are quickly merging. This means that understanding how to make your argument or advance your cause on the internet (as opposed to traditional fora such as a protest march, community meeting, radio call-in show, or op-ed) is now seen as a basic life skill.

 * This is not to say that Germans have no opinions. They've got lots of them, and enjoy expressing them. As the Greg Nees book I linked to a while back put it, "Germans ... shy away less from delicate issues like religion, politics, and sex than do Americans. This is something Germans miss when trying to have a satisfactory conversation with Americans, who are less willing to express different points of view, or at least to express them so bluntly. Germans do not necessarily like controversy more than Americans, but they shy away from it less. They share a widespread belief that it is important to be informed and to have an opinion, especially as regards politics. Not to do so is seen as a sign of poor character—and this is not only so among the highly educated Germans. Even among working-class people, talking about politics and other controversial issues is a common pastime. From the German perspective, having a good—even if somewhat confrontational—discussion allows the conversationalists to get to know one another better as well as helping them understand the world a little more. People who rarely express a clear point of view are viewed negatively as glatt (slippery), or 'lacking format.'" (p, 80-81)

Thus, if you hang around Germans, you will certainly hear lots of political opinions. But, in my experience, they'll generally be ones that (1) sound a lot like ones you've heard before; and (2) are invariably in-line with the opinions of other people in the same general social category.