Interview with Mick Fealty | Slugger O’Toole

The blogger behind the award winning Slugger O’Toole

On 11 July 1983 some bands were arriving off the boat in Belfast from Glasgow. In January 1994 at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania a student called Justin Hall started logging his diary entries onto his personal website. With some of his mates Mick Fealty took that boat the bands arrived on to head towards France for a holiday; later, he took up some voluntary work in Liverpool.

In 1997, Jorg Barger coined the word weblog, and on 01 April 1997, Dave Winer started the Scripting News which is probably the longest running weblog on the internet (if a weblog is understood as having posts that are sorted by date with the latest posts at the top and previous ones archived).

Mick went from Liverpool to the south of England for work. In 1998, a computer programmer called Peter Merholz introduced the term ‘blog’ by abbreviating and lowering the case of weblog. In June 2002, Mick Fealty started the blog Slugger O’Toole, setting it up as a resource to build an archive connected with his qualitative political research. Today, there are approx 100 million active bloggers around the world. Today, Slugger attracts 75,000 readers per month who are interested in learning about and commenting upon politics and news in Northern Ireland.

I had never interviewed a blogger before and imagined that bloggers were people with laptops who log their thoughts and insights in non-work type settings; like cafes, or on a beach, under a duvet. When I set out to interview Mick Fealty about the award winning Slugger O’Toole, I learned that he lives in Dorset, so I needed to request a telephone interview. His preferred method is Skype and after some to-ing and fro-ing on my part, we eventually connected. As it turned out, I asked him questions sitting at a desk and he responded on a beach in the south of England.

Mick hails from Belfast but has lived ‘over there’ since 1983, although he has been back regularly every year since, to follow and pursue his interests and passions as well as his work – “I’ve always maintained a working connection”. Despite leaving in the 1980’s, he did not do so to emigrate or escape ‘the Troubles’; instead, he went travelling, volunteered and then found work and then a partner and a home and children.

Before 1983, Mick Fealty was working in the North to bring people together through conversation and he was concerned with how to promote participation. Since 1983, Mick has been working to bring people together through conversation and he is concerned with how to promote participation. His first job involved working in schools and with local communities around Belfast, “using creative workshops and story creation”. He said, “It was community arts based and I was focused on what it takes to get people to work on shared problems without compromising their inputs.”

In the course of our conversation, it was clear that the principles and underlying values that informed his early work have carried over into the culture and ethos of Slugger O’Toole. Slugger is a finely crafted, highly engaging and in-depth blog site with a varied range of insightful contributors, particularly its editor Mick Fealty who is prolific. Slugger O’Toole has composed, at my count, about 40,000 blogs. Mick’s first post was on 05 June 2002 and they have not stopped since. The big question for me is how does one moderate a site which is primarily about Northern Irish politics while allowing readers the option to comment.

“It took about six months to stabilise the comments, but people learned that it is rule based participation – you play the ball, not the man. In fact, taking a political position should not require a moderator. Rule based engagement is the key, along with consistency. Some people fall foul of the rules, like in anything, but largely on Slugger there is self-policing. The enabling axiom is: Did you engage with the material of the story? You can tackle the ball hard but stay clear of the man. In other words, people have to comment on the content of what has been posted not on the person who has posted. Offending people doesn’t really come into it; we’re here to engage in and encourage enquiry. I mean in the digital world, it’s a multi-verse; there’s not an overall editor but there is the rule, and the boundaries are there.”

Mick mentioned that there are certain instances when care is required. ” The engine can overheat during elections or marching season or about highly controversial issues. A diversity of views and opinion creates a challenge, but conversation needs to be provoked and on Slugger we want people who swap versions of how the world sits with them.”

“ … The ‘comment zone’ can be a place for pushing and challenge and pulling things out of the normal context.” Mick went on to say that the ‘comment zone’ generates social data and that, “it is often there where you can find an unexpected story or piece of research”. He praises the contributors to the site and added: “Blogger quality encourages the enquiry into issues and stories to be diverse, and ongoing participatory enquiry means you find out the exceptions”.

Interestingly, Mick did not set up Slugger O’Toole as a vehicle for him to share his political views; rather, his intention from the start was to use it to complement his research and to create an archive of Northern Irish political discussion and insight. To his surprise and, “very quickly, we had high powered senior political people reading our stuff”. Some of those have engaged on the site but he has learned that many use the blogs and comments to gain insight and to gauge opinion.

“It was interesting because when we started (June 2002) not many politicians (here) would have known what a blog was, but it took off and I know that we are a reference point. We started to publish long interview transcripts we had done with (NI) politicians and those were a key driver for conversation. In the early days as well, we were about breaking stories but Twitter does that now; in a sense, Twitter is micro-blogging, but we are about enquiry, participatory enquiry. And now we have also become a useful historical archive. You can go back and read about the first Stormont Assembly collapse, what the issues were and what people were thinking”.

Slugger O’Toole is a highly regarded site voted the ‘Best Political Weblog’ for the European Weblog Awards and is known for finding and putting forth some of the best writing and research on Northern Irish politics. Not surprisingly, Slugger is a great place for journalists to get story ideas; “they use it to discover new leads and angles”. I don’t think you’ll find any ‘fake news’ in the 533 pages of Mick’s blogs or from any of the other contributors, but you will discover a diversity of fresh insight, unexpected perspectives and challenging comment.

Scott Boldt • Photo credit: Bobbie Hanvey

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