Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 26, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

BLOG NAVEL GAZING....Whiskey Bar's Billmon breaks his blogging silence in the LA Times today to mourn the taming of the blogosphere:

Even as it collectively achieves celebrity status for its anti-establishment views, blogging is already being domesticated by its success. What began as a spontaneous eruption of populist creativity is on the verge of being absorbed by the media-industrial complex it claims to despise.

In the process, a charmed circle of bloggers those glib enough and ideologically safe enough to fit within the conventional media punditocracy is gaining larger audiences and greater influence. But the passion and energy that made blogging such a potent alternative to the corporate-owned media are in danger of being lost, or driven back to the outer fringes of the Internet.

....I should have seen the writing on the wall earlier this year when the World Economic Forum, the ferociously trend-following CEO club, sponsored a panel session on blogging at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland....At the time, the idea of buying a blog struck me as funny, like trying to buy a conversation. Now, having seen blogs I admired mutate into glorified billboards, and having witnessed the emergence of the "sponsored" blog (in which the blogger is literally an employee of, or contractor to, a corporate owner), I can see who's likely to have the last laugh.

This is something that's been in the back of my mind for quite a while too despite the rather obvious irony that (a) I myself was one of the first sponsored bloggers, and (b) Billmon undoubtedly considers me to be precisely one of those who's "glib enough and ideologically safe enough to fit within the conventional media punditocracy."

But despite (or perhaps because of) my role in this phenomenon, it's hard for me to get my arms fully around what's really happening. Just for starters, there's a fairly large taxonomy of ways in which the political blogosphere is becoming "professionalized":

  • Amateur bloggers becoming pros. This is the most obvious path, but it's not all that common. Matt Yglesias and I have done it by getting hired by political magazines, and folks like Kos and Atrios have done it by raising enough money on their sites to live on, but it's still pretty rare.

  • More professionals taking up blogging. Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall were the first, but since then there's been an explosion of professional reporters writing blogs. In addition, there's the growing phenomenon of serious policy analysts Steve Clemons, Mark Schmitt, Ruy Teixeira taking up blogs. There have always been expert bloggers around (Brad DeLong and Eugene Volokh, for example), but the DC-based policy blog is a relative newcomer, and one that subtly but noticeably changes the amateur, conversational tone of the blogosphere.

  • Highly promoted blog empires. Despite the plural, there's really only one of these: Nick Denton's stable of snarkmeisters, including Gawker, Defamer, and Wonkette. Still, Wonkette's Madonna-like dedication to self-promotion is so conspicuous that I sometimes think she's single-handedly responsible for about 50% of the attention the blogosphere gets.

  • BlogAds. This is a way for amateurs to make a few bucks and still remain amateurs, but as Billmon points out, it's almost impossible to accept advertising and not have it affect your writing at least a little bit.

  • Outside organizations aggressively using the blogosphere. This is underappreciated, I think. It started with the success of Howard Dean's blog, but it was probably inevitable regardless: the spectacular growth of political and policy organizations working hard to get the blogosphere on their side. The DNC and RNC are obvious examples, but there are plenty of others as well, inundating us with press releases, requests for links, and conference calls to "get everyone on board." Unlike professional reporters, who are used to this, bloggers have fewer defenses (especially toward organizations they agree with) and are often flattered to be getting the attention. This is a potentially toxic combination.

And there's one more thing that might be the most important of all: the sense that bloggers are having an impact. When you have an audience of a few thousand, you can just write what you want without giving it much thought. But once the idea takes hold that maybe just maybe serious people are taking blogs seriously, it changes how you write. There's just no way around that.

All of this affects you whether you want it to or not. The Washington Monthly editors, for example, don't influence my writing at all, either directly or indirectly, and yet somehow they still do. My audience affects me, my commenters affect me, all the press releases and phone calls affect me, the ads affect me everything affects me, even if I don't quite know how. That's just the way life is, and there's no reason to think the blogosphere should be immune from the ordinary pressures of human existence.

But despite the handwringing over professionalization, it's also notable how little the political blogosphere has changed. Take a look at the top 30 spots in NZ Bear's blogosphere ecosystem and you don't really see that much change from two years ago: the blogs that are popular today are the same ones that were popular back in the supposed golden age of amateur punditry. And of course, the fact that there are some new entries in the list just shows that increasing professionalization hasn't made it impossible for newcomers to break into the top ranks. Not yet, anyway.

Still, I miss the old blogosphere too, and I hope perhaps vainly that when the election is over some of it returns. I hope Atrios becomes funnier again, I hope I blog more on nonpolitical topics, I hope Kos becomes less of a pure fundraising site, and I hope Sullivan returns to the amusingly incandescent liberal hatred of his early blogging days.

As they say, though, hope is not a plan. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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