I wasn’t involved at all in the festival this year, so I was determined to just relax and go only for events I really was interested in (didn’t happen quite like that, but that’s a different post). I discovered blogs and bloggers only a few years ago when I was interviewed for the now defunct site Moju, and it was a great discovery. I was living in Europe, and Sri Lankan blogs suddenly provided me with a view of Colombo that the newspapers just couldn’t provide. It has been a tempestuous relationship; I’ve had my first novel reviewed on a blog, I’ve been asked to contribute to a couple of blogs, I often get sucked into online brawls that seem to continuously rage across the comments forums in the Sri Lankan blogosphere. I also got asked out quite a bit, once I got back to Colombo, and even had a one night stand on the strength of a comment I made on a blog forum. Blogs have made me angry, they’ve made me think, they’ve made me laugh, and they’ve got me laid. Blogs are to me everything that the blog session at the Galle Lit wasn’t. Stilted, boring, one-sided, and in the end, a waste of time, is not how I would describe the Sri Lankan blogosphere.
Personally, I feel that the person responsible for organising that session, didn’t really understand the atmosphere and personality of Sri Lankan blogging, best experienced at Kottu, which is a Sri Lankan blog aggregator. The session was held at the hot and stuffy Maritime Museum in the Galle Fort, which is a beautiful building, but not really suited for a vibrant discussion. Putting a bunch of people on a stage and having a moderator and audience might work well traditionally, but blogging isn’t traditional, nor so formal. I think it would have been far more conducive to exchange if the whole operation had been conducted just down the road in the bar of the Fort Hotel, where we could have all sat around drinking, smoking and heckling — as we do every day online.
I also feel that the panel of bloggers could have been better chosen. As it stood, the lineup was Indi Samarajiva (Indi), Deepika Shetty (Read@Peace), Nazreen Sansoni, Sanjana Hattotuwa (Groundviews), Jehan Mendis (Ravana), and Iresha Dilhani (Digital Butterflies). The whole works was moderated by Nuri Vittachi, a Sri Lankan-born writer, comedian and feng shui expert.
Now, Sri Lankan blogs can be divided largely into two categories — the ‘personal’ blog, which is sort of a pimped-out diary or personal experience log (such as London, Lanka & Drums) ; and the ‘reactive’ blog, which is a blog generally devoted to a certain subject, agenda, or interest (examples from the two ends of the spectrum are Groundviews and DefenceNet). Arguably, there’s a third category, which is a sort of ‘commercial’ blog, which is run with the intention of promoting a brand or product such as a shop, movie, or car, though whether this can really be called a blog (in the spirit rather than letter) is debatable. Of the panellists, none really fitted into the Category #1 ‘Personal Blogger’. Certainly, Iresha Dilhani’s blogging is about her personal experience, but her work is more of an educational project conducted by Horizon Lanka, rather than a ‘real’ blog. While both Indi Samarajeeva and Jehan Mendis do post personal stuff, the majority of their writing is on subjects they feel strongly about (the stupidity of the government, Colombo’s one-way street system, orgies, etc), and they probably can be classed as Category#2 Reactive Bloggers, of which Sanjana Hattotuwa is a prime example. Nazreen Sansoni’s blog is mostly a promotional one for the Barefoot store, and therefore I’m not really certain she should have been included on the panel. Deepika Shetty, the designated representative of the mainstream media, and a Category #2, isn’t a Sri Lankan, and since the discussion was obviously about local blogging, it seemed a bit pointless since blogging in general isn’t a new subject. Someone like Rajpal Abeynayake, the editor of the Lakbima News who seems to love getting up bloggers’ noses would probably have been a far more entertaining choice. So I would say that the range of Sri Lankan blogs weren’t covered too well.
Regardless of blog type, I also feel that the panellists didn’t really represent a cross-section of the SL blogosphere. Where were the right-wing nutjobs like A Voice in Colombo, and the constipated pundits such as Sittingnut? Almost all of the panellists knew each other personally and mostly shared each others views. They were mostly middle/upper-class English-educated urbanites, whereas most bloggers on Kottu are Sinhalese-educated traditionalists who would have vociferously disagreed with many of the liberal views voiced onstage. A good example was (I think) Sanjana’s comment that this is probably the worst government we’ve had. I think many other more politically conservative bloggers would have pointed out the fact that if he could make such a statement onstage and then travel home to Colombo in safety it shows that we’ve moved on a bit from the Premadasa era. So this lack of bandwidth in the spectrum contributed to a rather stilted monologue by each of the panellists in turn, instead of a vibrant exchange of views into which the audience could have added their own voice. It seemed that everybody agreed with each other (when the hell has that ever happened on a blog?) and had sort of agreed beforehand not to disagree or bring up anything uncomfortable. Even when an audience member politely inquired whether there was any downside to blogging, the only real answer was from Indi who said that he couldn’t really blog about personal stuff or take the time to research background stuff for his posts. No one pointed out that many bloggers just get it wrong, or haven’t a clue about what their writing on. Or that blogs are a source of the most horrible libel and uninformed rumour. Though the whole anonymity aspect was only touched on (with Jehan taking the chance to pop out of Ravana’s closet), it wasn’t really addressed in terms of the lack of credibility blogs have due to the author’s anonymity. This lack of any sort of crosstalk from the panel ensured that there bloody well wasn’t going to be any inconvenient questions from the audience.
All in all it was pretty much almost (but not quite) the crappiest event I attended at the Galle Lit, and beyond the fact that it gave me some material for my own blog, I might as well have spent my time on the beach with a Carlesberg, or getting into a particularly tasty pair of pants I’d brought along.