TOC tackles blogs

This week’s Time Out Chicago is devoted to an important question: as blogging and user reviews become the most widely-read forms of reviewing and criticism, how do you know who to listen to?

The answer is simple: Read more.

I’ll just dispense with two bits right off the bat: anyone who doesn’t take blogging or amateur review sites like Yelp seriously is an idiot and anyone who doesn’t read any critic or reviewer with skepticism is too.

I wrote the lead story in the feature package, in part because I was so mouthy about how it should be written during the early brainstorming sessions that the Features department finally called my bluff and said “OK, you write it then.” It’s already engendering a little hysteria on the Yelp forums – hysteria that quickly dissipates when someone actually reads the piece.

I’ll admit to being in the pro-blogging camp, thanks to my time at Chicagoist; there is simply no better medium than blogging for writing about the immediacy of culture. But even though it’s a medium that’s been around for a decade, people are still coming to terms with it as its effects shape the consensus about not just movies and music, but also restaurants, businesses and current events. I believe online writing ought to be treated the same way as print criticism: one should take the time to understand the person who’s doing the critiquing before they can really understand the writing.

This was a risky subject for us to tackle, since the fact that we’re published on paper will automatically make anything we have to say on the subject of blogging seem suspect. And truth be told, this issue was a difficult birth. But overall, I’m really happy with the job we did. We take a critical, but respectful look at online writing that addresses the pros and the cons.

I count many bloggers as friends and acquaintances. So perhaps there was a bit of myopia at work when I began this issue. I think I felt that the Chicago blogging community was much larger than it actually is. We really had to push ourselves to find people in Chicago that were looking at their chosen subjects with a critical voice (and weren’t blogging as an extension of their profession), while not being too duplicative in the people we chose to profile over eight different stories, most of which profile several different blogs. Some fields (theater, food) have more voices than others. But some that you’d expect would be overrun with criticism – music, for instance – were not.

Let me be clear: there are lots of great music bloggers in Chicago. You can click on any of the folks in the Chicago Music Blogs section at right, and find wit, intelligence, and great writing (and Lord knows that blogroll needs and update cos there are lots of people I’m missing). But the folks who are writing actual criticism – writing that puts the works they discuss in context and measures what the artist is trying to do against what they accomplished – are rare. The field is still wide open for someone to step in and have an influential voice. And this isn’t just me saying this. Most of the folks I talked to, bloggers and professional critics alike, had a tough time naming local online writers they checked out on a daily basis.

But it’s really true of any field of culture right now, despite the fact that Chicago magazine is able to name 171 great websites* in the city. There’s a lot of information out there, to be sure. But the world could really use someone to put it all in context. That ought to be a challenge to anyone reading this. Frankly, it ought to be a challenge for me to do more with this space than just making snide comments about 80s metal, but I could use a break from work sometimes.

I’d encourage you to read all the articles in the package, but in particular check out the online roundtable featuring local print and online critics and the rundown of amateur critics’ blogs we found most worthy of bookmark status.Oh and my piece, of course. But you’ve done that already, right?

* Their story is more about informational websites, rather than critical/reviewing websites. It’s something you’d be able to see for yourself if the damn thing was posted. I know what it’s like having a small Web team, Chicago magazine. But get this story online already!

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