December 22, 2006

An opinion concerning the blogosphere:
Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion.


journalism as practiced via blog appears to be a change for the worse. That is, the inferiority of the medium is rooted in its new, distinctive literary form. Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope--though these things are not meant for public consumption. The reason for a blog's being is: Here's my opinion, right now.

The right now is partially a function of technology, which makes instantaneity possible, and also a function of a culture that valorizes the up-to-the-minute above all else. But there is no inherent virtue to instantaneity. Traditional daily reporting--the news--already rushes ahead at a pretty good clip, breakneck even, and suffers for it. On the Internet all this is accelerated.

The blogs must be timely if they are to influence politics. This element--here's my opinion--is necessarily modified and partly determined by the right now. Instant response, with not even a day of delay, impairs rigor. It is also a coagulant for orthodoxies. We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought--instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition. The participatory Internet, in combination with the hyperlink, which allows sites to interrelate, appears to encourage mobs and mob behavior.

This cross-referential and interactive arrangement, in theory, should allow for some resolution to divisive issues, with the market sorting out the vagaries of individual analysis. Not in practice. The Internet is very good at connecting and isolating people who are in agreement, not so good at engaging those who aren't. The petty interpolitical feuding mainly points out that someone is a liar or an idiot or both.

Because political blogs are predictable, they are excruciatingly boring. More acutely, they promote intellectual disingenuousness, with every constituency hostage to its assumptions and the party line.
From WSJ assistant editorial features editor Joseph Rago, earlier this week. Although he's understandably concerned with the effect that blogs have on the practice and craft of journalism (and I concur with much of his criticism over what passes for political blogging), he seems to be missing the point as to why this new medium rocks. With few exceptions, such as Josh Marshall's growing online fiefdom, bloggers aren't in the habit of breaking stories or reporting news, and the third-party interview with a newsmaker is rare. Indeed, bloggers are commenters, akin to the op-ed section of a daily newspaper, where the standard rules of objectivity don't apply.

The blogosphere is an improvement over the ancien regime in two ways. First, it has expanded the universe from which "pundits" are drawn, going beyond the perspective of former journalists, speechwriters and Ivy League academics. To communicate an opinion to a large audience no longer requires a person to have paid dues at a newspaper, or to have attended the Kennedy School, or to have signed on to a political campaign in his youth; anyone who is motivated enough to spend time in front of his computer can opine away. The popularity of blogs stems from the discovery that the opinion of a grad student, or a retired software marketer, or a housewife, or even a West San Fernando Valley bankruptcy attorney, can be as weighty as any of the Sabbath Gasbags.

Of course, the big initial drawback has been to promote those whose violent rhetoric has been more conducive to attracting attention and building a large readership, with the result being what Mr. Rago said, a panoply of angry, dull, predictable and partisan blogs using over-the-top attacks to bully their opponents. As the sad story of Ned Lamont's general election campaign attests, it is a style that is clearly counterproductive. But with thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, indicate, anything that shatters the elitist dominance of our public policy discourse, while expanding the realm of what ideas are considered "mainstream" or "acceptable" can't be a bad thing.

Second, even though the hyper-partisan rhetoric in most blogs can be deadly to the unconverted, not all partisanship is bad, as we can see when we examine the growing online empire of Markos Moulitsas. As any blogger who has a regular readership can tell you, the discovery that there are other people out there who feel the same way you do is a thrilling revelation indeed, and when multiplied exponentially, a site like Daily Kos can do remarkable things with that audience. The story of the 2006 election was that of a reenergized liberal base, taking the battle to the conservative ruling coalition that had governed this country since the late-60's, and against all odds, recapturing control of the engines of government.

This historic victory was accomplished because bloggers like Kos (IMHO, the person whom Time should have honored last weekend) and MyDD provided an outlet for people who otherwise would have felt marginalized by a political system that favors the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and gave them a chance to participate, one Congressional district at a time. These online bulletin boards alerted like-minded readers about needy, often quixotic challengers who needed money, canvassing, and assistance, and helped level the playing field.

In 2004, Kos got bageled in November, losing every race he focused on. This time around, that same energy and focus paid off big time for the Democrats. Bloggers are enabling millions of people to participate in our system of government, much as the old political parties did at one time, and are helping to discard outdated notions of what sort of grassroots politics is effective.

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