SEMINAR MEMBERS RESPOND
Blogs as Pamphleteers, Riding on an Anomaly
April 16, 2009
The most romantic way to think about blogs today like the Angry Arab, Daniel Drezner, George Packer's Interesting Times, or Simon Johnson's Baselinescenario is to hold them up as the pamphleteers of the Internet age. It's democratic. Hundreds of thousands, millions, (more?), of voices sounding praise, dissent, and bold new ideas into the public arena. Thomas Paine egged on the American Revolution with "The American Crisis" and today, if you've got the brilliance and the writing skills to convey it, the world is yours to change.
Did I mention the cost? It's free. Pay nada. Zilch. The printing press is included, and in the process you won't kill a single tree.
So, for obvious reasons, blogs are obviously incredibly powerful. They toppled Dan Rather and regularly shape the national news conversation. In recent years, reading personal blogs from inside Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan has offered an intimate portrait of faraway but vital places, the views of which are conditioned by traditional sources in myriad ways (see aforementioned Angry Arab). It's not much of a leap to say that blogs have changed the way the conversation takes place.
There's one problem, though. Blogs may have changed the conversation, but in themselves they could never be the conversation.
I would argue that much of the rise of blogs -- at least those that are politically inclined -- came about with the decision of the major news outlets to offer their content for free. Try to imagine any of the modern-day pamphleteers you read without links (or the insights offered) to the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Financial Times, CNN, BBC, Time, Newsweek, and on and on. The fact is that this wildly innovative, dauntingly disparate and fantastically fascinating emergence of political blogs has been built on an anomaly of the market (read our content for free!) and it will likely soon be going away. In the next half decade, I contest, news organizations will, in some way or another, once again demand payment for their work.
What, then, will bloggers blog about?
(That is, of course, setting aside the overwhelming number of personal blogs -- about babies, weddings, travels, friends, personal emotions, vapid everyday life, etc . . . )
A few people in this seminar have rightfully pointed at the way blogs have undercut more traditional -- journalistic, academic, or otherwise -- ways of thinking and writing. For sure. Reading online is something else entirely. Check out Slate's take on this a few years ago, which I think still stands quite straight.
Bringing all this together, yesterday I wanted to read the 20,000-word piece in Vanity Fair on the demise of the Times. So I printed it out, stapled it, and devoured it. Didn't pay a dime for an exhaustively reported and edited piece (no living blogger could ever achieve such a feat). Now, I'm blogging about it.
Regarding the Drezner and the Angry Arab. The two are so distinct in style, but that's much a part of the blogosphere. The Angry Arab is mostly links with little commentary and (it seems to me) purely utilitarian -- it's handing its readers what they need, and not going much beyond that with frills or thrills.
Drezner, however, blogs for foreignpolicy.com, an arm of the well-established Foriegn Policy magazine, all of which was recently bought by the Washington Post and now operates under the banner of the Slate group. To that end, it is polished, produced and plays into a large network of content by a major media conglomerate.
Is one better than the other? As far as blogs go, with all their potential, I'll leave it at: each has its pluses and minuses.
One thing is common to all blogs -- and this one included. It's demonstrated by the nature of this post, as it is by most blog's intellectual drives and writely execution. And on this I won't hedge. It's the downside (and it's a big one) to all blogs: there is no editor.