TCS Daily

The Blogosphere Grows Up

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series.

We've come a long way, baby. Blogs have gone from barely-understood phenomenon to near-commonplace in this election cycle, and it looks as if they may be having some impact on the results. They've even gone commercial, with services such as blogads making it possible for successful bloggers to earn a living that compares with what many journalists earn -- and making it possible for far more bloggers to justify their activity to themselves, or their spouses, as a hobby that at least makes money instead of costing money.

In the process, of course, things have been lost as well as gained. No doubt after the election there will be many retrospective pieces written, talking with the benefit of hindsight about the influence that blogs had. But at the moment, when confused and contradictory polls mean that I can write behind an almost Rawlsian veil of ignorance, I want to take advantage of that status to look both forward and back.

Blogs have been around for a while, of course -- since sometime in the 1990s, depending on who's counting. But the blogosphere didn't come to prominence (in fact, the term "blogosphere" wasn't coined) until after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And, those attacks, and the unimpressive media coverage thereof, led to the growth of the warblogs. Warbloggers followed the invasion of Afghanistan, and savagely mocked those who declared it a "quagmire" before it even began. They played an even more significant role in the Iraq War. As I noted in The National Interest:

"Fact checking" journalistic reports was a major aspect of the warblogs' work, and the results were occasionally startling. Correspondent Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker reported from Baghdad that the American bombing campaign had left "a landscape of death and wanton devastation, all stamped 'Made in America.'" Warbloggers immediately noted that commercial satellite images of Baghdad, released by the private company SpaceImaging that same day, showed no such devastation, with the city remaining largely intact and traffic moving normally through the streets. This correction received a good deal of attention nationwide, and bloggers also noted on-the-ground reports from a blogger in Baghdad (the pseudonymous Salam Pax, now a columnist for the Guardian in London) that damage was less than Western media were claiming--and noting that Saddam's men had been filling trenches with oil and igniting them for several days.

Similarly, Australian journalist and blogger Tim Blair noted a report by Robert Fisk of the London-based Independent regarding an American missile that hit a marketplace in Baghdad. Blair reproduced the serial number reported by Fisk as proof that it was an American missile. But several knowledgeable readers weighed in to establish that while the missile was probably American, it was an anti-radar missile. It likely struck the marketplace because the Iraqis had concealed a SAM battery there, perhaps in the hopes of drawing fire and causing civilian deaths that could be blamed on the Americans. So Fisk's reporting, which was expected to make the American effort look bad, thus wound up demonstrating that the Iraqi government was likely guilty of a war crime.

This didn't fit the script, and many journalists were unhappy with the fact-checking -- as, I imagine, the armored knights of the middle ages were unhappy to encounter longbows, crossbows, and pikes -- technological innovations that meant their dominance of the battlefield was at an end.

What the September 11 attacks were to the warbloggers, though, the Democratic losses in the 2002 Congressional elections were to the left. Up to that point, though there were plenty of lefty blogs, the blogosphere tilted pretty solidly to the center-(libertarian) right.

But after that, the left worked hard to catch up. It didn't hurt that the Democrats faced a contested primary season, which drew lots of Internet activists into the blogging fray. Between the Howard Dean campaign and the activism associated with anti-incumbency, the lefty side of the blogosphere expanded. And the character changed. When my own InstaPundit blog was newer, people sometimes wondered who would be the "InstaPundit of the left." But what the left wanted more than punditry was activism, and sites like DailyKos are more like miniature political machines, concentrating on fundraising and get-out- the-vote efforts in a way that few right-wing sites do. Though talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt is starting to fill that niche, and no doubt others will, too, the right doesn't have anything to match Kos this election cycle.

The result is that the blogosphere has become more political, and more professional (not only are quite a few bloggers making money off ads, but Kos is a political consultant, and many other lefty bloggers have been hired by David Brock's Media Matters organization -- which, it seems to me and to others, has affected their tone). In the process, some of the pleasant amateurism of the early days has been lost.

That's no surprise, as it's the way almost everything goes, if it's successful. One of my hobbies is making electronic music, and it seems to me that the changes in the blogosphere over the past three years or so resemble the changes in the rave/electronic music scene in the early 1990s. When it started, we were all dancing in abandoned warehouses, under the radar of the authorities, and there was lots of PLUR-talk (Peace Love Unity and Respect). But then the parties got bigger, more people started to notice, and some people started to make money, which made some others jealous, or competitive. (A short history for non-ravers can be found here).

Despite the fears of many in the scene, the music didn't go bad, and the blogging won't either. (And both blogging and electronic music maintain a strong amateur component, and a propensity for swiftly elevating new talent -- for the same reason, which is that technology has made both fields easy for amateurs to enter). But the vibe is different in both fields, and so are the expectations of both performers and audience. Still, it would be a mistake to make too much of these changes: Although the very top levels of the blogosphere (in terms of traffic, that is) may have changed, they represent a tiny slice of the blogosphere, and the spirit of amateurism remains very much alive elsewhere.

What does it all mean? And where will we go next? That's a topic for another column, coming soon.


TCS Daily Archives