The Professionalization of the Blogosphere

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 10/10/06

Part II of a five-part series on the history and future of the blogosphere.

It’s no secret that the blogosphere is becoming more professional.  Most of the bloggers on Markos‘ blogroll and, more importantly, on the Liberal Blog Advertising Network (where membership is determined by a popularity formula) are political operatives (like David Sirota), experts (like Nathan Newman, or niche bloggers (like BlueOregon).  Chris Bowers, who rose to prominence as a number-crunching diarist on MyDD, now has his own consulting firm; Joe Rospars, who ran a blog smaller than mine is now three years ago, became the Internet Director for the DNC.

I discussed this phenomenon with Matt Stoller on Wednesday after the Andy Stern lecture.  Over Diet Coke and fries, Matt explained to me his view of the situation.  The way he sees it, all bloggers are niche bloggers — even the Blogfather, though his niche is that of general liberal hub.  The only difference between today’s blogosphere scene and that of three years ago is that there are fewer niches now; the days when anybody could start a blog about anything and be instantly read are over.  Nowdays, the principles of the capitalist market govern which blogs succeed and which fail; a new blogger has to be selling something the public needs in order to score traffic.

Matt’s a persuasive guy, not to mention a highly intelligent one.  And technically, he’s right — this is exactly how the system works.  But something still bothers me about the process, and I’ll attempt to define that over the flip.

My discomfort with the idea of blogosphere professionalization stems from my experience with the Dean campaign.  Under the leadership of Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager and the movement’s online svengali, the campaign sought to reach out to individuals by empowering them, making them influential partners in the campaign organization and decision-making process.  The model for this strategy was the online concept of Open Source.  As Trippi wrote in 2003 (via Aziz):

I spent some time as an advisor to Progeny Linux Systems (the Debian flavored Linux) — the time spent there really influenced my thinking about an open source campaign.

I mean the political system today is exactly the same thing — a small group trying to keep control of a system they designed and that they hold the keys to — and an open source campaign is one that conducts open converstions, open collabortation — and in the end the contributions of many individuals in terms of time or resources when marshalled together will have the power to take government by the people back. Its the whole thinking behind a new politics of meaning — because without the people getting involved again politics has no meaning. I don’t know maybe I am rambling — but it is how we are trying to do this — maybe its a strecth but the fact is it was the time spent in Linux related endeavors that has shaped my thinking.

As Slate’s Chris Suellentrop wrote at the time (again via Aziz), the campaign’s efforts to encourage blogosphere diversity were hugely successful:

In addition to the Meetup.com gatherings (which grew out of a posting on the unofficial “Dean Nation” blog) that have been garnering press for Dean across the country, Dean supporters have organized themselves into unofficial groups such as a “Dean Media Team” that (among other things) is distilling Dean speeches into streaming, Internet-friendly sound bites and the “Dean Defense Forces” that organize letter-writing responses to negative articles in the press. It’s peer-to-peer politics—voters connecting to other voters without the middleman of official campaign sanction.

But by encouraging so much spontaneous organization, Dean has—knowingly or unknowingly—ceded a lot of control to these unofficial groups. It’s a gamble that may pay off, but it’s still a gamble. If television took some power away from political parties and handed it to the candidates, the Internet has the potential to transfer that power again—this time by handing it to the voters or, more accurately, to organized activist groups like the ones that are now swarming around the Dean campaign. Dean hopes to assimilate the growing online liberal Borg, but it’s possible that the Borg will assimilate Dean.

Small, unofficial, decentralized campaign offices (like the ones on the left on this page) could narrow-cast the Dean message, doing to the Dean campaign what fan fiction does to Harry Potter: They could create their own narratives and highlight their own issues and points of emphasis. It’s possible that this approach would be wildly successful, allowing Dean’s campaign to target a broad variety of voters with distinct messages. Gays for Dean? Go to this site. Geeks for Dean? Click here. Nurses for Dean? Right this way. Let a thousand Dean campaigns bloom.

Suellentrop’s reference in his last sentence to Chairman Mao‘s deceptive encouragement of Chinese intellectual variety has proved prescient in the intervening years.  With the discrediting of Trippi for funnelling campaign funds into his own ad firm, leadership in the blogosphere passed to new individuals who were less interested in making sure there was a mouthpiece for every comer.  While existing writers were not exactly kneecapped by the big bloggers, the ascendance of Scoop software made new writers more likely to gravitate toward an already-established literary organ rather than starting their own sites — kind of like working for a big manufacturing plant instead of owning your own business.  Accordingly, individuals’ sense of ownership of the blogosphere began to decline, replaced by the odd phenomenon of diarists claiming some sort of ownership of someone’s else’s private blog because it was their own primary online home.

Why is any of this a problem?  Because it threatens the status of the blogosphere as an insurgent social revolution.  Back to Brooks Adams, whose Theory of Social Revolutions addresses the problems with a movement that becomes progressively less receptive to its constituents:

I assume it as self-evident that those who, at any given moment, are the strongest in any civilization, will be those who are at once the ruling class, those who own most property, and those who have most influence on legislation. The weaker will fare hardly in proportion to their weakness. Such is the order of nature. But, since those are the strongest through whom nature finds it, for the time being, easiest to vent her energy, and as the whole universe is in ceaseless change, it follows that the composition of ruling classes is never constant, but shifts to correspond with the shifting environment. When this movement is so rapid that men cannot adapt themselves to it, we call the phenomenon a revolution, and it is with revolutions that I now have to do.

Nothing is more certain than that the intellectual adaptability of the individual man is very limited. A ruling class is seldom conscious of its own decay, and most of the worst catastrophes of history have been caused by an obstinate resistance to change when resistance was no longer possible. Thus while an incessant alteration in social equilibrium is inevitable, a revolution is a problem in dynamics, on the correct solution of which the fortunes of a declining class depend.

I could go on about this for hours.  I could compare my position  with Thorstein Veblen‘s The Theory of the Leisure Class and Matt’s with Andrew Carnegie‘s The Gospel of Wealth.  But the issue here is a lot simpler than that: The blogosphere is not a business, it is a social movement — and I think many of today’s big bloggers have forgotten that fact.

Essentially, I don’t believe the blogosphere should be judged by capitalist standards because its goals, from the perspective of liberals, are not capitalistic.  It’s distinct in the very fact that it has goals; teleology is not a facet of capitalism.  Blogging may be moving ahead successfully as big business, but I’m not convinced that it is fulfilling its promise as an agent of social change from the ground up.  If we bloggers aren’t careful, we may soon find ourselves being lampooned as a hopelessly entrenched elite by followers of an entirely new medium.

What can we do to stave of this eventuality?  I’m not certain.  But I do know that the kind of hubris currently exhibited by some big bloggers to small ones is our fast ticket out of power.  Maybe bigger blogs aren’t the answer.  Maybe we need a Dean-like figure to rekindle the old grassroots fire.  In any case, blogosphere professionalization is something we need to be talking about, before it really begins to hurt us as a medium.

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