Blogging to Utopia

Are weblogs The New Alternative Press?

When the people at Pyra Labs developed a Web tool in 1999 that allowed the user to create, from any Net connection, a page that could include links, graphics, and text, the news was overshadowed by seemingly bigger Web stories: notably, Napster and the monstrously hyped idea of WebTV.

Napster is history. And when was the last time someone enthused about WebTV? But blogs have entered the mainstream big time. Web diaries have become a must-have high school accessory. Current-event blogs are everywhere, and have even generated a blog oligarchy: webloggers like Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall (of Talking Points Memo), and Glenn Reynolds (of InstaPundit).

Interestingly, the blog seems to be resurrecting a form that was invented on March 1, 1711, when Joseph Addison and Richard Steele started The Spectator. The authors called The Spectator a "diurnal essay" – in other words, a daily that covered politics, culture, and lifestyle issues from a personal POV. The current environment in which blogs have flourished is oddly similar to the London landscape of Addison and Steele's time, when England's first stock market bubble coincided with a fad for coffeehouses to produce a constituency for a new, disposable kind of text. The Spectator provided perfect reading matter to bond this community of coffeehouse goers.

What blogs add to Addison and Steele's primitive print format are links and interactivity. Blogs can accommodate comments, which have become the most fascinating parts of some of them. And links allow the reader to segue seamlessly from text to reference – or to another blog – in one reading session.

In a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review from last year, Matt Welch, a blogger and journalist whose chops include being on the original masthead of The Prague Post, the legendary Nineties weekly, contrasted the vitality of blogging with the anemia, as he sees it, of alternative newspapers. In an e-mail interview, Welch lists certain news stories that blogs have pushed into mainstream media, like the controversy over Arnold Schwarzenegger opponent Cruz Bustamante's membership in a supposedly radical Latino Student Association, and the coverage of the Bush AWOL issue by fellow California blogger Kevin Drum of Calpundit. "Basically," Welch says, "I think the blogs provide oxygen, allow stories that are on the borderline of newsworthiness to be picked at by interested nonprofessionals, and then if there's enough fire it'll spill into a Drudge, or a James Taranto, or cable news, or a Paul Krugman column."

One of the more fascinating aspects of blogging is the meld between the intellectual life mirrored in dated blog entries and cultural politics. Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor specializing in the Shiite culture, has found himself much cited in the news. According to Cole, his blog has a lot to do with that: "Reporters have called me from all over – Baghdad, New York, London – to get my take on the Shiites, and I've spent hours talking to them. Many of them did not start out knowing much about it, but as reporters they are excellent at pulling out the information from people once they get interested, and in many instances they got interested at least in part because of my blog."

According to Cole, the blog format has had a broadening influence on his style: "One novelist told me he thought I had developed what fiction writers call a distinctive 'voice' on the weblog. It is definitely a different voice than the ones I use for academic papers or even for op-eds. It is informal, simple, and often has attitude – the way I would talk with a bunch of friends after dinner rather than the stiff and careful discourse of academia."

There is a rapidly increasing number of bloggers who are using the medium to deal with their specialties. Carl Zimmer, the author of Parasite Rex and Soul Made Flesh, writes the Loom, a science blog. A typical Zimmer post will discuss such things as the evolutionary competition between mothers and their children or bash the Bush war on good science. He also contrasts blogging with other forms of writing: "For one thing, writing books and magazine articles is a slow business. You have to find an idea, write up a proposal, and fine-tune it for an editor. ... But with a blog, if I come across a cool piece of research, I can write up something about it and have it published as soon as I think it's ready for other eyeballs. I can also skip that subtle process by which I shape an article to match what I think are the preferences of a magazine (techie, human interest, etc.). It's just what comes out of my head, for good or ill. And just as quickly I can get reactions from readers – both the admirers and the fiskers."

At the end of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola says the greatest film will someday be made by some 18-year-old Iowa farm girl with an old video cam. Coppola is voicing the deepest yearning of modernist culture: the utopian conjunction of high art and the "people." The aura around blogging comes out of that same desire. Are blogs truly democratizing? Zimmer worries that "many blogs are abandoned within a month, and I wonder as well about blog readers – how long will they keep reading?" Cole brings up a very salient point when he remarks that "it is also true that there is no business model for blogging, and there are lots more remunerative ways to spend one's time." However, advocates tout the populism inherent in the medium. As Matt Welch puts it, "The biggest impact, I still think, is that citizens will see themselves more and more as publishers, as co-participants in a discussion they were usually barred from previously."

The Blogs in Question

Carl Zimmer:

Matt Welch:

Juan Cole:

The SXSW Interactive Festival will present Weblogs and Emergent Democracy and many other blog-related panels Saturday, March 13, through Tuesday, March 16. Check schedule or see for details.

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