We are Blog. Resistance is Futile.
I just finished reading Hugh Hewitt's new book, Blog. In it, he points out that if you write a biography about a living person, you are guaranteed to sell at least one copy. Similarly, he claims, if you post online about an active blogger, you're guaranteed at least one page view. Well, I hope he's right. I look forward to reading his thoughts on this essay.
While I typically have something to say on things technological, I am most certainly not a book reviewer. Given that Hewitt's book is about today's hottest technology topic, though, I will cautiously dip my toe into those waters: for better or for worse, Hugh Hewitt is an blog-evangelist. According to Blog, everything that has happened to journalism in the last 2+ years has either bode well for blogs, or has bode well for blogs despite appearing on the surface to have bode poorly for them. Blogs, the book claims, are poised to affect every aspect of our lives, from politics and corporate scandals to religion and commercial retailing. Anyone who isn't aware of the blogosphere is doomed to be "blogged," and anyone who doesn't participate is at a competitive disadvantage. Lest you think I'm exaggerating the point, Hewitt compares the rise of the blogosphere to (among other things) the swarming armies of the 7th century Muslims and 13th century Mongols, the invention of Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, the awesome destructive powers of earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, and even Martin Luther's "Ninety-five Theses," which started the Lutheran Reformation.
Which is not to say I disagree with his basic point; the blogosphere has most certainly changed our world. My quibble with Blog is the extent to which it has mattered, or will matter in the future. Hewitt sees it as a cataclysmic, nearly biblical event. I see it as an evolutionary step, similar in many ways to the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1994, or the beginnings of electronic commerce in 1996.
The Blogosphere's Greatest Hits
For those who are not aware, the term "blog" is short for "web log" and refers to a type of website where a single individual writes short, journal-style entries on just about any topic. According to a site called Technorati.com, which tracks this kind of thing, there are currently 7.3 million blogs out there, most of which concern themselves with the author's thoughts and comments about his/her own life, hobby, family, pet, favorite pop star, etc.
Some of them, however, behave like self-published newspapers (or, in some cases, self-published Op-Ed pages), reporting on current events, offering commentary on what is happening and, very often, what others are saying. A select few of them have become very popular in the last couple of years, attracting tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of readers each day. While the concept of the blogosphere is extremely powerful and unique, it is principally the activities of these "uber-blogs" that has caused such a stir.
Hewitt mentions several events that define the rise of the blogosphere as a force in modern journalism. The first was the resignation of Trent Lott as Senate Majority leader in December of 2002. At a hundredth birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott inexplicably endorsed Thurmond's failed presidential bid in 1948, saying that had Thurmond won, "[the country] wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." This offended some, since Thurmond's Dixiecrat party ran on a pro-segregation platform in 1948. It probably would have offended more, but as you can imagine, the various speeches and toasts at Strom Thurmond's hundredth birthday party were not particularly well covered by the mainstream media. Several bloggers, though, including those at Eschaton, TalkingPointsMemo, and Instapundit, heard the comment on ABC News and pointed out the insensitivity of the remarks. From there, other bloggers linked to those comments and added some of their own. As momentum grew, the Washington Post and the New York Times eventually started writing about it, then President Bush condemned it, and by Christmas, Lott had resigned his post as Majority Leader.
For most, this was a "man bites dog" story. The bloggers congratulated themselves on scooping the mainstream media, and those in the media with enough humility to do so, acknowledged that they had been beaten to the punch. Cute. Real cute.
Then came Rathergate. In September, 2004, 60 Minutes II ran a now famous story about George W. Bush's national guard service. In it, they claimed to have obtained memos from the 1973 Texas National Guard proving that Bush had received special treatment after failing to follow orders. A blog called FreeRepublic quoted a New York Times article on the memos, and a discussion amongst its readers ensued. A reader nicknamed Buckhead mentioned that he thought the memos were forgeries, because they were "in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman [and] in 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts." Another blog, Powerline, linked to that comment in an entry called "The Sixty-First Minute." What ensued was a very long and detailed discussion among experts in the fields of technology, typesetting, National Guard procedures, and other endeavors who collaborated to prove that the documents were disingenuous. As with the Trent Lott story, the mainstream media eventually began writing about the newly discovered facts. Dan Rather and CBS were ultimately forced to publicly apologize for their sloppy fact-checking and hasty reporting.
Other examples followed, including one since Blog was published - the resignation of CNN's Eason Jordan. Jordan gave a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where he allegedly claimed that U.S. Troops had intentionally targeted and killed journalists. A man named Rony Abovitz, the founder of a technology company who was attending the conference to accept an award for the company, wrote about Jordan's speech in an unofficial blog provided by the WEF. As above, other bloggers linked to the story, and eventually, the public pressure caused Mr. Jordan to step down.
Unlike the Trent Lott's story, these last two examples illustrate something that the blogosphere brings to journalism that has never existed before: the people contributing to the story were not journalists. They were experts in the subject at hand. Before blogs, these people would be telling their stories around water coolers and family dinner tables. Their theories might spread by word of mouth ("Billy told me about this guy he knows who knows a guy who's an expert in typography, and he says that those memos on 60 Minutes are definitely forgeries..."), but unless one of them could catch the ear of a reporter, their theories would likely die unheard.
In the blogosphere, though, the "swarm" that Hewitt refers to begins as soon as the story is reported. On any subject you can think of, it's pretty likely that there are experts out there (like typographers) or people with first-hand knowledge of the event (like Abovitz) who, given the opportunity, can pipe in with information that gets us all closer to the truth, without a lot of hype or spin. And if one of them turns out to be a lunatic who's spreading lies for some personal agenda, it's just as likely that other "experts in the field" will come out of the woodwork to call him/her out. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the first fully-distributed, self-correcting fact-checking service.
The Tools in the Toolbox
So what of Hewitt's claim that the blogosphere represents the next Reformation? If you read the above examples closely, you'll find that the blogosphere rarely acts alone. News often comes to it from mainstream media sources (ABC News, 60 Minutes II) and, in cases where it makes the most impact, gets picked up by mainstream media after sufficient discussion has taken place, causing some resolution.
As I said above, this strikes me as more evolution than revolution - another tool people can use to stay informed about the world in which they live. But there are many tools in that toolbox. If we consider all of them together, some obvious categories emerge:
Using the Right Tool for the Job
If the blogosphere were the world-altering tornado that Hewitt claims it to be, one could remain sufficiently informed by using just one tool in the box. The others would rust from neglect, and eventually be discarded as relics of the past. As I've said, I don't think that is what's happening right now. I think the most efficient way to stay well informed given today's toolbox is to use each tool for the appropriate purpose. To wit:
The News Summarizers are still the best source for local news, if only because no one else is interested in providing that service. When a subway line in Manhattan shuts down for construction, for instance, it will be the lead story on the local news program and the front page story in the New York Post. It will not appear on CNN, nor will I read about it on the newswires or on InstaPundit. There might be a New York City Subway blogger out there who will post about it, but it won't be the same blogger who talks about the water main break, the new art exhibit in Central Park, or the mayor's latest proposal to ban smoking in public places. So, when I want to know what's going on in New York, I turn to the News Summarizers.
The News Tapeworms are where you want to go for coverage of large-scale, pre-planned events, like a presidential inauguration, a royal wedding, a memorial service, or a moon landing (should we ever have one again, of course). The Tapeworms can dedicate the time to cover the event from beginning to end, and they have the financial and human resources to plan out their coverage for maximized viewing utility. Using another tool to watch such an event (for example, the mysterious art of "live-blogging," in which a blogger watches the event, usually through a News Tapeworm, and then makes multiple posts describing what he/she is seeing and thinking), strikes me as sub-optimal. Watch the event yourself, and then turn to the News Postings for analysis and opinion (more on that later).
The other area in which the Summarizers and the Tapeworms shine is investigative reporting. This is a less sustainable area of competitive advantage, but there's no denying that it exists today. Investigative reporting requires significant financial and human resources, as well as the credibility that comes with a strong reputation and an impressive resume. This credibility provides these organizations with access to government officials, corporate executives, difficult to obtain documents, and high-level courts (and lawyers). I can easily see a day coming where Glenn Reynolds or Hugh Hewitt asks for a meeting with a high-level government official to discuss the latest scandal and gets the meeting, but I think the big newspapers and news desks still have that advantage right now.
Where the News Postings currently shine is in the reporting of everyday events, and as the best tool for fact-checking and bias-checking of other news sources. It turns out that most news reporting does not require investigation or heavy research. It just requires telling us what has happened around the world in the last few minutes or hours. The newswires and blogs are the ideal tools for this information. If I check my MyYahoo! page right now, I find Top Stories that were updated in the last fifteen minutes, World News that was updated between two and eight hours ago, and financial news from eleven to nineteen hours ago (it's the weekend, and the financial markets are closed). This tells me that had I turned to CNBC, a News Tapeworm, for financial news in the last eleven hours, I'd have learned little to nothing of importance. Similarly, had I picked up today's New York Times for information on the top stories, I would most certainly have missed whatever happened in the last fifteen minutes.
In terms of fact-checking, I've already discussed how the blogosphere's "distributed network of experts on everything" is the best tool we have for identifying mistakes or lies in the other tools (and within the News Postings too!).
In addition, I believe the blogosphere is also our best barometer for bias in other media outlets. It seems that today, everyone claims the mainstream media (MSM) is biased against their side. This is how we come to live in a world with both a "liberal media" and "vast, right-wing conspiracy." Sometimes, fact-checking is enough to dispute an argument about bias. Other times, though, a biased source is committing errors of omission, or simply "spinning" the facts to fit its conclusions without actually telling any lies. The "man on the street" nature of the blogosphere helps to counter-balance this effect. As an example, consider the issue of how Iraqi citizens feel about the current war. Reading the Summarizers and Tapeworms provide one view of this issue, actual Iraqi citizens who are also bloggers (like this one and this one) often provide a different perspective.
The Proactive News Consumer
As the 2004 U.S. Presidential Campaign started to heat up last summer, I made a concerted effort to stay informed by using all of the tools in my toolbox as effectively as possible. The result is what I call the Proactive News Consumer (PNC).
In the past, consuming news was a passive activity. You watched Walter Cronkite every night and read the New York Times every morning, and "they" told you what was happening. There was little room for nuanced debate, and even less questioning of what "they" were saying. Today, the information-rich nature of modern society as well as the very existence of these tools require one to be a PNC in order to sufficiently keep up. Here's a rough breakdown of how I went about using these tools:
First, I checked the News Postings several times a day to stay informed of the day-to-day goings on. During the presidential race, the wire stories and blog entries I read told me where the candidates were and what they (and their campaigns) were saying on a daily basis.
I depended on the Summarizers and the Tapeworms to investigate the candidates and the various claims by/about them, and to raise any potential scandalous behavior to the forefront (e.g., the National Guard memos, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth commercials). Once they did so, I could follow the progress of these scandals with my News Postings tools. The only time I would actually watch/read a Summarizer was when a local story developed (e.g., a candidate visited the New York area), and the only time I would watch a Tapeworm was for intense, multi-hour coverage of a specific event (e.g., the political conventions, the election night returns).
The blogs, in particular, played the fact-checking and bias-checking roles described above. In many cases during the political campaign, the facts behind a particular issue got called into dispute. One candidate would make a statement, and the other would call him a liar. Defenders and detractors would spring up on both sides to repeat the talking points that were so obviously prepared by the campaigns to "get the message out." The blogs provided a forum for discussion about these events.
In many cases, no one post or comment resolved the issue for me. Instead, reading and participating in the back-and-forth discussions gave me a sense of what the facts really were, and how people on both sides of the argument were using those facts to make contrary arguments. This understanding allowed me to form my own opinion.
I found this to be a key component of being a PNC. At one point, I complained to a friend of mine that John Kerry had not articulated his positions on several important issues well enough for me to form an opinion, choosing instead to focus on his Vietnam service and the President's handling of the war in Iraq. My friend pointed me to John Kerry's website, where all of his positions were clearly stated in tremendous detail. Reading through it, knowing that anything written on Kerry's website was obviously designed to portray Kerry in the best possible light, the blogosphere's fact-checking and bias-checking power became clear.
The problem wasn't the availability of the information. The problem was the lack of discussion about it. I needed the "experts on everything" to pick apart Kerry's plans, highlight the strengths and weaknesses, discuss the underlying assumptions, and debate each other on the outcomes. Without being able to witness and participate in that debate, I no longer felt confident that I understood the issue thoroughly.
Since the election, I have found that this model still holds. I still get my day-to-day news from the News Postings, turning to the Summarizers and the Tapeworms only when necessary, but remaining thankful for their presence to drive the investigation and research necessary to keep the newsmakers honest.
So What's Next?
As a PNC, blogs provide an integral tool to remaining informed about current events. But in many ways, they are still in their infancy. New technologies are already appearing that promise massive changes to the way we interact with blogs (e.g., pod-casting, video-blogging).
So what happens next?
In my view, the current blogging explosion represents the growth portion of a typical product lifecycle. Eventually, growth will slow down and a shakeout will occur. Much like the newspapers, TV news, and cable news channels before it, the blogosphere will stratify into the Mainstream Blogosphere (the MSB?), the second tier blogs (who exist primarily to provide content for the MSB to link to), and a host of smaller blogs, which are relegated to discussions of specific areas of interest or an individual's personal concerns (who get linked to only when current events intersect with their particular area of expertise).
As the MSB establishes itself, increased readership will provide increased access to financial and human resources. Subscription-based blogs will appear. Discussions of online advertising revenue in the trade rags will start to distinguish between eCommerce-based advertising and blog-based ads. Marketing firms will begin to discuss the value of brand names like Instapundit and DailyKos.
The lines between News Postings and Summarizers/Tapeworms will start to blur, as blogs develop the credibility and staff to investigate their own stories, do their own research, and speak directly to the newsmakers. Summarizers and Tapeworms will expand their own blogging capabilities, either through growth or acquisition. Some of the most successful blogs will become wholly owned subsidiaries of the existing media giants, providing the blogger with far greater resources and the media company with an interactive, News Posting capability.
The result? An integrated mainstream media that can cover multi-hour events like a Tapeworm, investigate new stories like a Summarizer, and post news as it happens while interacting with its readers like a News Posting.
That is until the next evolution comes along.