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YearlKos Liveblogging: On the Evolution of the Blogosphere

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, August 3 2007

I'm at the panel on the "Evolution and Integration of the Blogosphere" panel, which was originally going to have the word "professionalization" in the title, its moderator Chris Bowers of OpenLeft says. The panelists are Duncan Black (Atrios), Tracy Russo (Edwards campaign blogger), Ali Savino (Center for Independent Media), Amanda Marcotte (Pandagon), Matt Stoller (OpenLeft.com) and Amanda Terkel (Think Progress). As with all liveblogging, don't use these as direct quotes. I've added a few parenthetical comments on my own in italics.

Chris Bowers starts out by asking: In terms of traffic, the top 50 national blogs who focus on politics has remained almost identical for the last two years. Instead of starting their own blogs, new people blog at DailyKos or HuffingtonPost, two mega-blogs. The top 50 receive over 95% of all the traffic. Is it fair to say that a blogosphere establishment has formed, at least in terms of urls, if not in terms of people?

This is a good question, but it frames the discourse too narrowly. My first question is "compared to what? Is this new media system more or less open, or more or less stable and impenetrable, than earlier systems? If someone obscure can post something important and within hours or days have hundreds of thousands of readers and attendant impact, how can the word "establishment" really apply? And what about all the non-blog tools that the read/write web supports, like social network sites and video?

Tracy Russo answers that yes, at least in terms of people, a "tight-knit network" has formed. It's harder for new voices to draw readers away from their established reading habits. But there are new niches appearing, like religious bloggers or environment bloggers. [Good observation, methinks.] I think it's human nature for this to happen.

Amanda Terkel says that because the top blogs produce so much content, it's very hard for anyone to match that. HuffPost has 40 employees. ThinkProgress has four. You also see the establishment trying to co-opt the blogosphere. Ultimately it still depends on good content, not whether you come from an established organization. But overtime she agrees its natural for an establishment to form.

Duncan Black recalls how it was radical to be able to post a web page and get about 1000 people to come. The articles about Glenn Reynolds, uberblogger, was when he was getting 3000 hits a day. People who think the blogosphere is impenetrable, the fact is lots of people put up new blogs and attract one or two or three thousand people a day, that may not be a business model, but I remember when we didn't talk about business models.

Totally agree. The net effect of such an open system is the important point, not the prominence of the sticky head of the long tail. Plus, I suspect top bloggers who get stuck in their ways will get displaced by innovators, over time.

Ali Savino: In 2003-4, I remember when Firedoglake and Americablog were getting established and that doesn't appear to be the case anymore. But on the local level, the vast majority are very new and fresh. You couldn't call them establishment, but they're huge in their states, with everyone in the capitol reading them. Same with niches like environmental and women bloggers. [Ditto.]

Amanda Marcotte says a lot of the feeling that there is an establishment comes from the sense from people with teeny blogs who feel that they can't get more attention. I think there's still a decentralization of the blogosphere, you can post diaries on DailyKos and break in. I'm wary of calling it an establishment when there's no central place that you can call the Blogosphere.

Matt Stoller notes that broadband adoption has slowed, except among black and latino communities. If you look around the room, this [the blogosphere] is a media model for liberal whites. That market, I think, there's no more there. At least not now. There was a pressure that was so extreme from 2002-06, that Bush put on this country, that led to the development of a whole lot of new entities--like CAP, Media Matters, ActBlue. But in 2006 that pressure was removed. And you haven't seen new institutions on the left since then. It's a generic stall going on in the progressive movement, I don't want to call it a problem. The reason we were growing is that Bush was so dishonest, and the media elites and Democrats weren't calling him on it. But that pressure has been removed, and now we're starting to learn how to wield power. This is a movement-wide stall. Maybe a financial crisis or a pandemic will change the internet space dramatically in the future.

[If I were in charge of giving out MacArthur genius grants, I'd give one to Matt. But then it would go to his head.]

Tracy Russo responds: It's really hard to be one of those top 50 people, producing all that content every day, and promoting it to their fellow bloggers. You can work at it, however, but it's really hard to be a good blogger.

Ali Savino: There really isn't a single blogger type. Even Duncan has his guest poster minions. Unless you have five friends who want to start a site with you, I don't know how you can do it.

Chris Bowers jokes, "The correct answer to my question is yes there is an establishment and we all take our orders from Markos." The audience laughs appreciatively.

Next question: The term blog originally referred to an individual journal. Now it refers to sites that do investigative journalism, on the ground reports, sites that do whip counts on campaigns, gossip sites, book writing sites, etc, etc. Is it still accurate to refer to writers that engage in those activities as blogs, or are they media outlets and activist organizations in their own right? And when you deal with these people in your own work, do you feel you are dealing with other bloggers or activists or what?

Matt Stoller: I just read a book called Everything is Miscellaneous [by David Weinberger]. The argument is that the way information is ordered contained within it all kinds of weird power relationships. Tagging, where information is social, is better and makes more sense, removes gatekeepers. That's where our institutions are moving. Networks of people make a lot more sense than just what hats to do I wear. This is a problem because I wear a lot of hats, and my mom doesn't know what I do, except that once I got in the NYTimes. The difference between a journalist, a blogger and an activist--they're all agents of change--but we don't have the language to better describe this more "free agent" model of networked politics.

[If he gets that MacArthur grant, will his mother be happy?]

Amanda Marcotte: You stole a lot of what I was going to say. I like the word "blogger" even though it is just a publishing platform. But it does help you resist being shoved into a category like activist. Media types are beginning to accept that blogger is its own category, a broadbased one. Most bloggers are analogous to self-appointed pundits.

Ali Savino agrees, it's only a tool. You can be a journalist, an organizer or an activist. It doesn't matter.

Duncan Black: I think some of the language creep is absurd. I see MoveOn described as having a blog, but I don't think they're bloggers. [Amen.] Bloggers are people who use this blogging software. Backing up a bit, I think the confusion about the roles that bloggers play has its roots in the campaign finance reform movement, which, whatever their intentions, forced people who do politics to have a structure. And when these new people came along and said, I'm going to raise money and support candidates, etc, and you can do it without formalization, we've returned back to amateur political engagement which doesn't require formal legal structure. And that's confusing to people.

[I wouldn't blame the campaign reformers for this. Better to blame the lawyers.]

Amanda Terkel: It's funny when one of our senior people want to write something for our blog and they'll immediately degrade their writing and become more stream of consciousness and snarky. But the establishment is getting more accustomed to dealing with us. It's good that you can say to people on the Hill that you're a blogger and it's less of a dirty word. What I like is the much lower entry cost and the ability to define for yourself what you're going to do.

Tracy Russo: If you think you're a blogger, you're a blogger. Other people shouldn't tell you what you are. People who just comment on DailyKos consider themselves bloggers. As Markos once said, to say "I blog is like saying I phone." [Amen!] If we're early adopters, yay us. We shouldn't try to help the media pigeonhole anyone.

[I agree. I often tell journalists to substitute the word "citizen" for blogger, or perhaps, "empowered citizen," when they ask about political bloggers and their role. There's such a fetishization of the term going on, it's important to separate the tool from the person using it and their goals.]

Chris Bowers: Last question: Traffic in the national progressive blogosphere has stagnated since reaching a peak in September/October 2005. The persistent problem of diversity in the blogosphere continues unabated: it skews white, male and upper educated. What should be done about this?

Tracy Russo: In my former life at the DNC I was tasked in doing outreach. Gov. Dean believes in our party being as diverse as possible. And my job was to translate that online. When you approach it like that, you find all these niches of bloggers, and they just aren't connected to each other. Feminist bloggers will have a completely different blog roll than, say, Markos does. If you are at the top, you have to make a true effort to take people in. Remember this is so new and we're still taking baby steps. This year there are more women on panels, for example. we're aware that there's a problem and we're actively seeking to remedy it.

Amanda Terkel: It also is about who has internet access, which correlates to level of education, for example. But we also have to actively search out new voices, rather than respond to whoever emails us a link. ThinkProgress is working on a blog fellows program, for example.

Duncan Black: My blog is really my voice. I don't write a lot. I link to other people, link to new sources, link to people who make jokes I wish I had made or wrote things that I wish I had written. When we move out of my zone into communities of people who are talking about things I don't really know about, I may read them and find them fascinating, but there's a barrier to linking to them because they're not really in my voice.

[I really appreciated the honesty of this response, but it is also very revealing of a deep problem. Not linking to something because it doesn't reflect your voice means amplifying your voice-type over others. Is there a way to get bloggers like Atrios to get out of their comfort zones more?]

Ali Savino: when we talk blogs here, we're assuming political blogs. And there's a huge number who aren't explicitly political. there are food blogs that are talking about the farm bill. The gossip blogs are all young gay men who should be interested in gay issues. yes, the political blogs developed early because of this deep seated need because there wasn't progressive media. Look at Perez Hilton, who is 10 times as big as Kos and is eating into Drudge, which I love.

Amanda Marcotte: On diversity, there's actual a lot out in the blogosphere, and there's two barriers to knowing how much. One is when you see someone commenting, there's this racist/sexist assumption that they're a white male. So a lot of people fall under the radar. Also, white men were there first and built the biggest blogs. There's some mild active discrimination going on, but it's subconscious. The establishment got built without a lot of women or people of color bloggers. [This is the early-in, lock-in problem...which makes me wonder if there could be anything like affirmative action online to address the structural imbalance that has resulted.] All that said, it's important that top bloggers do reach out. When I first got into blogging, there was a lot of emphasis on blogging and links. But I'm more impressed by inviting bloggers to blog at your place permanently, or guest blog. Those tools would help get more diversity of voices out there.

Matt Stoller: I like to look at larger power dynamics in society and understand the blogosphere as a reflection of them (though it sometimes drives them). It's not people on dial-up, it's people on broadband. It's about power. Rural and poor areas don't have as much access to broadband. Those are areas where people are less likely to use tools of empowerment, like blogging. For some reason, single women don't like to talk about politics online as much as white men. It's a reflection of larger dynamics in society. They're the least registered group of voters. They don't like the sharp rhetoric of politics, whether or not it's done online or elsewhere. This can be fixed, but I don't know how to fix it. There is black radio and latino radio, which also arose for similar reasons that helped our media system arise. But you never hear people say, "Why doesn't Tom Joyner have more white listeners? Isn't that a problem for him?" One other thing, there's a war between grassroots and elites in the Democratic party. That's a dynamic that's similar in the black and Latino and womens communities. They may not be having those fights on the blogs, but that doesn't mean they aren't going on. I don't know how to solve this, but there are some structures that have been helpful to empowering people and bringing them in. One of them is unionization...the other is really working to build coalitions around issues of power.

Duncan Black: One quick comment, I certainly agree that diversity in the political blogosphere is a problem, but I don't think Markos is best described as a white male.

Q&A from the audience:
Q: In terms of the risks of institutionalization, I see them coming from money. How do we make sure independent voices stay strong?
Ali Savino says: We give stipends to our fellows because what they do is work. But we have a firewall between our donors and our fellows. Our fellows are independent from the financial streams that come in. We actually have a debate on whether its better to list those donors or not have our fellows even know who they are. What I've seen from people with the ad revenue model, I've seen bloggers attack their own advertisers. But if you're on the fine line of just making it, it becomes harder to do that. And we'll see more of that just before the election, when we see ad revenue skyrocket.
Duncan Black: Money can corrupt as can lack of money. The advertising model gives you the most independence. My blog is me. Nobody tells me what to do.
Amanda Terkel: I come from a blog that is supported by an institution supported by funders. In many ways we have to fight to be seen as more credible because we're seen as less independent. I don't know the majority of the Center's donors, and if they start taking money from Exxon, I don't want to know that. But the Center has made sure to not dictate our content, we don't have to run it thru the fundraising department. Organizations that want to have credible blogs have to make sure they can say what they want to say.

Q: Liza Sabater of CultureKitchen: Matt, what you said about single women, what I see the problem in the most of the liberal blogosphere is that people assume there's one way of doing things online. Digital sociologists like danah boyd are finding that people get to be intimate in very different ways depending on their background. I don't see any kind of technological innovation in the political blogopshere that can network us better. People who use Soapblox [a platform similar to Scoop, which powers DailyKos] are becoming very content with that way of connecting. We could actually get to much better ways of doing this.
[Unfortunately, no one deigns to answer or comment on this. The structure of blogging, diaries, threaded comments and peer moderation seems to suit everyone here in the room just fine. I guess fish sometimes can't see the confines of the fishbowl they're swimming in.]

At this point in the panel, 75 minutes in, my fingers gave out...I enjoyed this panel very much. At the same time, it was too blog-centric for my taste. The read/write web of civic participation is much bigger than blogging alone. In the last year, we've seen how social network sites like MySpace or Facebook can be major drivers of attention and collaboration (for the ups and downs of both, see the Obama campaign). And we've also seen how one person can become a new kind of channel for video-based community (see the Hillary 1984 video or James Kotecki's emergence as a leading commentator on campaign web video). Traffic on the top political blogs may be stabilizing in part because of the stagnancy of the political moment, but also because they aren't innovating with the new tools for communications as much as other newer and more nimble actors. I suspect a year from now someone reading this post will marvel at how leading analysts of political blogging could have assumed that this dynamic medium had become so settled. Myself, I expect otherwise.