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May 31, 2006

The New Poor Richard’s Almanac - why blogging is important to the public interest

Blogging, bloggers, blogosphere. One can’t shake a stick without stirring up a covey of blogs. We’re about to choke on blogs, but scarcely know what they are or, more to the point, what they do. While blogging’s lineage can be traced all the way back to tribal fireside circles and cave paintings, the birth of weblogs proper was in the glossy world of web technology development, or so they tell me. Geeks ranting about minor differences in their geekery – now there’s some summer reading.

It didn’t take long, though, before politics entered the conversation, and many un-wired types got sucked in. After all, what topic could be more harmonious with a technology that promotes unchecked bloviating? When blogs started to feel like they had an audience, they quickly got bolder and louder. The 2004 federal election cycle is widely viewed as the watershed event for political blogging, even as several political blogs were alive and kicking well before then.

The way I see it, there are two main branches of the political blog’s family tree: one marking those that sprang up out of the perception that the mainstream media are eternally biased toward the political left, and so they aspire to fact-check and remove spin (“fisk” is the hip verb you’ll want to use to denote a particularly comprehensive debunking); and one containing those that sprouted “netroots” in liberal cyberspace and have successfully facilitated fundraising and organizing for progressives on an unprecedented scale. Each branch has a decidedly populist foundation, yet each has inevitably morphed into an aristocracy worthy of a chapter in Rousseau. There’s even a blog that ranks blogs (based on their inbound links) into a so-called “ecosystem” with classifications like “Crawly Amphibian,” “Adorable Rodent,” and “Playful Primate.” (The top ten are lauded as “Higher Beings.”)

The fact that the most-read blogs are almost always those centered on politics, government, and the media demonstrates something rather interesting: ordinary people have taken on the responsibility to fill a gap in our national consciousness. A common allegation is that the mass media bear all the blame for allowing breaches to occur in our erstwhile civic foundation (one that, surely you’ll agree, is underpinned by the average citizen’s vigorous involvement); and I give credence to that argument, for the lure of advertising dollars is most exceedingly great, and the wills of the programming execs are only so strong. But the sad truth is that we, the public, are the ones who gobble up both the cheap wares being hawked and, as a side item, the criminally shallow content so shoddily erected to prop up the ad stream. The public consumer leads in this symbiotic dance toward the precipice of irrelevance.

Except that some, first a few and now a growing number, are finding blogging an effective way to talk back to the idiot box, the fish wrapper, or what-have-you, and to have those words understood and shared by others. Individuals working alone or in small groups are publishing the now-fabled “rest of the story.” They are sparking intelligent debate on critical topics, from the hyper-local to the pan-global. My essay is not merely a flowery cheerleader piece – to be sure, a great deal of picking and choosing has to happen when searching for blogs to read. Bloggers are as prone to spinning words, omitting problematic facts, and just plain making up stuff as are any other humans. Fortunately enough, the offerings keep increasing, and with them the likelihood of finding reason served in straight-up distillations.

And things do happen because of this web-based communication tool. There are stories too numerous to print, about major electoral upsets, high-profile journalist resignations, and sexual-preference “outings,” that were all brought to pass by measurable and concerted efforts housed chiefly in blogdom. Blogs are fast becoming a staple in the average politico’s information diet; even President Bush, who once declared that he doesn’t read newspapers, has of late been kept briefed on what blogs are saying. Candidates for office are making strides toward reliance on blogs to provide the conversation that can’t be had in a receiving line or on an airport tour. Elected officials write diary entries of the day’s governing progress (or, too often, the lack thereof), and readers can often provide direct feedback into the process.

To question whether blogging as a technology will last or change or fade away is valid, if academic, but it misses the point. The vehicle is not as important as what’s being delivered. We don’t know the future of weblogs; but we know what they have brought us so far, and we can only hope that whatever comes next expands ever further on the principle embodied in early American pamphleteering. It’s a concept that we had largely lost during our postmodern consumerist stint, and it appears to be making somewhat of a comeback.

Plus, if you can get around on a computer, it beats screaming at the TV.

[This article appears in the May 31, 2006 Pulse.]

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Pulsations | By joe lance | 12:01 AM